Towards a Sustainable Environment

Isa 43:17-21; John 14:25-27

Our spiritual teaching today is as simple as it is profound. God has given us the Holy Spirit, who will lead us towards finding the solutions to our future problems. God is still speaking to us, still pulling us towards the future, pulling us towards a future that will be richer, and more meaningful, and more promising. We Christians are asked to stay expectant in hope.

These are heady days for the ‘glass half empty’ wing of the Environmental movement. Elizabeth Kolbert has a disturbing article in the New Yorker this week on the rising temperatures and the increased acidity of ocean water world-wide. Both of them are likely caused by global warming and they are causing widespread bleaching of coral reefs in the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where we can document the rate and the extent of the damage. One of the most beautiful parts of our earth under threat.

That followed another piece she wrote earlier this year on the number of species in the rain forest that are disappearing. She used the example of frogs. No one knows exactly what is causing this but they speculate that it is principally driven by elevated acid levels in the water where they live. It shows just how intricately connected the whole earth is and how seemingly slight variations in the ecosystem can have dramatic implications.

Researchers are worried that this is going to come back to haunt us directly. Among other things, we have developed a number of different medicines from exotic plants and animals that live in the rain forest. And since the rain forest produces this incredibly rich variation of species compared to the zone we live in, we are worried that the potential cure to a significant disease might not be discovered because the species that would open the lock for medical development is becoming extinct before we actually located it.

And then you have weather weirding, like the 17 inches of rain that fell on Houston this week, a once in every 500 year rain.

The protest movement has plenty of fodder these days… But, I am a ‘glass half full’ environmentalist. Because I believe that our actual solutions in the future will come from novel and interesting technological advances that will simply make our world a cleaner, more beautiful place to live. Technologies like what?

I decided to call the experts and I phoned the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the guys that are responsible for setting the standards for everything from the specs on your toilet to the specs on the Nuclear reactors in South Jersey. I asked the receptionist to get the big Kahuna on the phone. I needed answers. She buzzed me up to the 25th floor on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. And I got? Tom Loughlin on the phone.

And he would be here right now, but he is at a conference somewhere around the world, with other engineers that are actually building the solutions for tomorrow as we speak.

Tom pointed out that it was only 130 years ago that Thomas Edison, New Jersey native, opened his first electric power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. He deployed direct current, 175 horsepower generators powered by steam engines that were fueled by coal burning furnaces. He served 500 customers with 10,000 lights and provided electricity as far flung as a few blocks in every direction.

Today, a look at the United States at night, you have one large swatch of light from Boston to south of Washington, D. C. and the whole country twinkles like a Christmas tree.

So I asked Tom, ‘Give me a couple of promising areas of development?’ This is what he said. [Loughlin starts]

Paul Cleri, director of technology development for ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, calls batteries “the Holy Grail” of today’s utility industry.  How come?

“One historical advantage of the use of coal and oil and natural gas has been that we could store them.  Electricity itself, since the days of Edison, has always faced the significant limitation that it has had to be generated and delivered at the same moment.  Storage of electricity itself on any useful scale has not been possible.  Thinking back to the reservoir metaphor up to now an electron made has been an electron burned.

This is the crux of what has changed.  Cleri and his colleagues around the world are close to solving this longstanding challenge in a host of different ways: novel chemical arrangements including Hydrogen, Lithium-Ion, Lead-Acid, Sodium Nickel Chloride, or Sodium Sulphur; mechanical technologies like flywheels and “Alternative Compressed Air”;  several promising “alternative battery technologies” including pumped storage hydroelectricity, traditional compressed air, ultra-capacitors, and “Power-to-Gas”.  Real, large-scale energy storage solutions are arising in real time.

Asked about breakthroughs in battery technology earlier this spring, Paul Cleri said: “We will solve it – of that I’m confident… Elon Musk could announce the news tomorrow.”

It turns out that Paul’s timing was spot on.  On March 31 – just last month – Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, unveiled their Model 3, a new electric car which will provide previously impossible capacity and range.  Conservatively, the Model 3 will travel 215 miles between charges, more than doubling what was possible for an electric car at its price point.  The Model 3 will retail for $35,000 before $7500 in government clean-energy incentives, making it significantly less expensive than many of its competitors among “combustion cars.”  Musk amazed the crowd – and me – when he announced that in the previous twenty-four hours, over 115,000 people had paid a $1000 fee to reserve their own.  After the first week, Tesla had collected $7.5 billion in pre-orders.   There has never been a pre-order on this scale for anything…ever.   We are witnessing the birth of sustainable, clean-energy transport – fueled by breakthrough batteries – even now.

And that’s just the news in Lithium-Ion storage.  Another promising solution, based on hydrogen, is also being implemented as we speak.  One of the chief advantages of hydrogen storage is that it can be massively scaled: A 2-MegaWatt hydrogen “electrolyzer” about the size of a shipping container can be easily installed beside a field of wind turbines or near a distribution substation.  In Germany, they are doing this right now.  Sub-megawatt-sized electrolyzers are helping German engineers store the excess wind energy they harvest with those colossal turbines along the autobahn in the form of hydrogen gas.  Germany’s Trade and Investment office, a department of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy says, “A storage technology which allows electricity to be held in reserve in the megawatt range represents a system solution to the problem of surplus energy reserves.”  They’ve got a point.

In the United States, hydrogen storage technology may not yet have been implemented in commercial markets, but research and development is proceeding apace.  The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Wind-to-Hydrogen Project shows how an American system might work. Housed at the National Wind Technology Center near Boulder, Colorado, the project integrates wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays with electrolyzer systems to produce and store hydrogen.  Kevin Harrison, a senior engineer at NREL, said: “…hydrogen as an energy storage medium has many benefits, one being that it offers modularity to expand. You can store hydrogen in large tanks and underground caverns to time-shift energy for days and weeks.”

Whether we join the Germans in opting for massive-scale hydrogen storage or take a different path, storage technology will before too long allow us to unlock and store the vast power waiting to be captured from renewables.  And when enough sunlight shines on one Arizona County on one sunny day to power the entire United States think of where we will be when we can store it.

Modern Nuclear Technology (SMRs)

Even as the future of storage is getting brighter, engineers are making important headway in modern nuclear technologies.  The possibilities they have found are likewise great.

Nuclear reactor design is described in generations.  Generation I reactors were built in the 1950s and 60s.  Generation II machines have operated in the U.S. for decades, and many remain in service.  Gen III and III+ reactor designs describe the innovations that arrived in the fourth quarter of the 20th century, even as U.S. construction of new nuclear facilities slowed.

Generation IV is now on deck.  Gen IV includes small-scale modular reactors, or SMRs — the “backyard reactors” you may have heard about.

The possibilities of SMRs are promising: they can be made relatively inexpensively, in factories; they are sealed and built to run for decades maintenance-free; their cores cannot melt.   SMRs are small enough to ship on 18-wheelers.  Where an old-line coal plant is shut down, we can install an SMR and – presto – pre-existing infrastructure works again, but carbon-free.  They will significantly ease the cost of grid-transition.

Big traditional players (e.g. Westinghouse) as well as smaller startup firms (think Bill Gates’s TerraPower) and the VC world are moving into SMRs enthusiastically, and it is easy to see why:  Gen IV nuclear technology may be the quickest and best way to generate vast amounts of clean cheap power.

Prototypes of such Gen IV technologies are slated to be up and running by the early 2020s.

 

Hyper-Efficient Distribution: The Smart Grid

Much of our attention here tonight has been on source technologies.  But game-changing technology is also on its way on the distribution side, in the coming hyper-efficient energy distribution network known as the “Smart Grid.”

How we’ve lived since Edison and Pearl Street: massive, highly-centralized, highly-loaded power stations.  Where we’re going: super-sensitive, intelligent, decentralized, interwoven micro-grids.  Tomorrow’s network will store, optimize and balance the flow of electric power down to the level of the individual appliance.  Again, Paul Cleri of ASME: “The system will be decentralized, distributed, with no big plants at the center anymore.  It will instead be more of an ebb-and-flow system with storage points everywhere.”  Is this some far-off dream?  No.  Earlier this year New York State finalized its plans to start testing this new technology and preparing for the upgrade.

The Smart Grid, bolstered by continually expanding ranks of electric vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 – each one effectively a storage node of the Grid — will become bigger, smarter and more efficient with each new device or vehicle that connects.  Real-time super-sensitized distribution throughout enhanced networks that are expanded exponentially by millions of electric vehicles – all will reduce the pressure on our baseload needs.  A profusion of sensors will be marshalled for this job; literally trillions will be manufactured in the coming decade for this purpose.

Smart Grid technology will let us ease and manage our overall systemic load with far greater efficiency than was ever possible before, even as our ability to generate clean, cheap power diversifies and expands.  Think of it this way: the present electric grid is comparable to early telephone networks, with every call dependent on the center.  What’s coming is an “Internet of Things,” each one powered and potentially managed from many different nodes within the grid. Every electric vehicle added to the grid will mean enhanced capacitance for the system as a whole.  Tomorrow’s network is now on its way.”[i] [End the Video]

I asked Tom how he dealt with the issue of Climate science which remains ‘politically charged’. His answer, befitting an engineer, was pragmatic. He said, ‘given the evidence that we have, the most prudent way forward is to proceed ‘as if’ climate change is man-made. It is true that climate science is incredibly complex, so we will have to err in a direction until we gain fuller knowledge.

But it isn’t just a negative approach. We want to leave the world a cleaner, more beautiful place than when we came on the scene. On our watch, we want to de-toxify the environment for our children. We don’t want to pass on a mess that will be very expensive for the next two generations to have to clean up.

I’m glad I know some of the Tom Loughlin’s of the world, the people that are actually working on solutions to the present generation of challenges. They are a bit of an antidote to the blustering politicians that sound like our world is falling apart. In truth, we are making steady, significant progress every day of the week. And every once in a while, like with the invention of the internet, we make a conceptual breakthrough that revolutionizes the entire way organize ourselves, exponentially increasing our efficiency and productivity.

Something promising is on the horizon. Stay expectant and full of hope. God is still speaking, pulling us towards a richer, more meaningful future. Amen.

 

[i] This is Tom Loughlin’s work, just inserted in the middle of my presentation.