Denver, CO 13 May 2021
This interview originally appeared in Wind Power & Energy Solutions North America magazine, Issue 9 2013
Ecotech Institute is the first and only college entirely focused on preparing America’s workforce for careers in renewable energy and sustainability
ShawnLamb, Program Director at the Institute, talks us through the latest thinking.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “sustainable” is defined as: “relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” With dwindling non-renewable resources, sustainability, once a buzzword that was usually used to green-wash a corporation’s image, is now becoming an operating imperative. Most Fortune 500 companies are looking 10-20 years ahead and realizing that the resources they count on to run their businesses may not be readily available. Chris Martenson, author of The Crash Course, aptly describes the world’s coming resource crisis by saying, “The next 20 years will be completely unlike the last 20 years. Our role as a society will have to shift from one of consumption, to one of sustainability and stewardship.” I agree that this is necessary for the continued survival of our modern way of life.
In a world of increasing resource use, we see the rise of the exponential depletion scenarios. An exponential decrease in supply is a mathematical certainty when that resource is being used at an ever-increasing rate. Even a small year-over-year increase in demand (say one percent) will inevitably lead to an exponential depletion profile. For example, there are many resources, essential to our modern, high-tech way of life that will see their depletion scenarios run out wihin thenext 20 years. Light-sweet crude oil, copper, gallium, lithium, bauxite, indium, among others are all expected to runout in less than 20 years at current growth rates.
Most importantly, water is also beign consumed at ever increasing rates. We have lived thousands of years withuout electricity, but not a day without water. As Bruce Marlow, Vice President of AREVA puts it, “You can’t drink a glass of electrons.” Bruce and others like him are working hard to address challenges in water and energy, primarily by addressing technologies in the “Water-Energy Nexus”, which is loosely defined as the interdependent relationship between electricity generation and water. Currently, almost half of all water consumption in the U.S. is used for electricity generation. There is a lot of room for improvement in recapturing that water or replenishing supplies through desalinization.
The era of oil
If we back way up, and look at our civilization from the first recorded societies until now, we will see that cheap and easy oil has been at the heart of our social complexities and industrial advancements. Before 1800, muscle and fire were the primary energy sources. When the coal train came on the scene, it was a marvel of modern technology. The use of coal, as a concentrated energy source, drove many expansions and increased social complexities. Oil, once discovered, was by far the highest concentration of energy known to man. Oil is “lightning in a bottle” compared to coal. This portable, liquid, high energy substance was quickly introduced into transportation and became the new standard.
Little thought wsa given to world-wide depletion scenarios until recently. M. King Hubbert, an American geophysicist, theorized that the extraction profile and subsequent production of a single oil well can be extrapolated to all oil reserves, and that the production models would roughly follow a bell curve. This is the theory of peak oil, which implies a sharp decline in production and in turn will spike oil prices. If the peak oil scenarios are correct, then we need to be moving towards a new energy source for transportation. The obvious choice is electric vehicles, since we currently have many ways to create electricity. This is where renewable energy comes into the picture.
Our current transportation systems rely on continued, if not increased, supplies of non-renewable fuel sources. This is unsustainable, and doesn’t make sense long-term. The energy sources that won’t go away, such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal, to name a few, have to be harnessed and used to create electricity. It will take a conscious decision byour society to use the current embodied energy sources to transition to this new electrical infrastructure.
Transition to an electric infrastructure
Until the United States can switch to a fully electrical infrastructure we need a “bridge fuel” for our transportation sector. The obvious bridge fuel seems to be natural gas because of its high energy yield and abundance. Our infrastructure would have to change quickly and dramatically to accommodate for this transition. After having just visited the Denver Car Show, I felt a little uneasy about the automotive industry’s slow progression away from the typical gas-guzzling cars and trucks towards more efficient hybrid, electric, or natural gas vehicles. It’s almost as if the car companies don’t understand peak oil and its implications. I saw a couple electric vehicles and natural gas trucks, but 95% of the new cars and trucks that were presented at the car show were “status-quo vehicles.” Not game-changing and certainly not heading towards where we need to be as a society. There is a lot of embedded capital in preserving the status quo vehicles. I just hope that car companies are quietly working behind the scenes, preparing for the natural gas and electric vehicle change.
Challenges in technology
Even if our country had a clear vision of where we want to end up in terms of energy, transportation, and infrastructure, there ar curretnly obstacles and challneges that need to be addressed in order for these scenarios to play out properly. The biggest challenge is that of electrical storage. Our battery technologies are relatively simple and antiquated. If we want to move to a distributed electrical system, our current focus as a nation should be on electrical storage technology. Although lithium batteries are efficient and small, it is unclear that there is even enough lithium on Earth to build out the infrastructure needed for an electric transportation future. Electric storage technologies must be made from relatively abundant materials, due to the depletion scenarios stated above.
Another important challenge will be in teh longevity of the renewable infrastructure. If we start now transitioning to a renewable, electrc system, we would have to ensure that the invested capital would last through the transition period (~15-20 years). Currently, wind and solar technology can accommodate those timeframes, if we focus on improving their quality. For example, the multi-stage planetary gearboxes that are common in most megawatt-scale wind turbines are showing signs that failure modes may occur far sooner than originally thought. Manufacturers originally thought gearboxes would last the life of the turbine (~20 years), but the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) estimates that the mean time to failure is 7-11 years on average, but could be as low as four years.
If the wind industry and the DOE (NREL) cannot find ways to extend the mean time to failure for gearboxes, this may threaten the longevity of wind turbines and the entire business model for wind. Fortunately, advances in condition monitoring and predictive maintenance will rise to meet the challenges. Companies like DINGO Energy have taken proven techniques for oil & vibration analysis, often used in the mining industries, and moved them into the wind energy sector. Auston Van Slyke, a wind industry expert, states, “Gearbox failures can be prevented and predicted with condition monitoring. Investors need to realize the importance of condition monitoring technology.”
As a society, we will do what we are expected to do, which is to be creative and intelligent in order to sustain ourselves. New technologies are already emerging that could be potential game-changers, such as thorium reactors, advances in residential and commercial energy efficiency, off-shore wind turbines, concentrating solar thermal, concentrating photovoltaics, among others.
One of the most important technologies will be the ability to maintain a stable electric grid system, and reallocate power as needed. New technological advancements in smart-grid are essential for our transition to an electrified future. Even coupling thousands of community-scale grid systems together will be possible in the near future. As much as I like to believe in technology to save the day, the rate of adoption may not be scheduled with enough urgency to fight the exponential decline of non-renewable resources. It is important to prepare for a “leaner” future focused on sustainable best-practices.
As with any fundamental shift in society, the world’s best and brigtest will need to lead the charge. Is is not enough to simply invent and test new concepts; we must also deploy, manage, and maintain this new infrastructure. With the advent of electric cars, smart grid, wind turbines, solar, energy efficiency, and other technologies, we must have a highly trained workforce to accompany it. The skill sets are still being developed for many of these emerging disciplines. A well-rounded approach, including physics, math, electronics, instrumentation, power electronics, PLC (programmable logic controllers), motor controls, as well as hands on mechanical, wiring, schematic reading, specialized tools, computer will be paramount in training the next generation of highly skilled technicians and leaders. This is precisely why I became a Program Director at Ecotech Institute in Aurora, Colorado. The change that is necessary will need the support of schools like Ecotech in order to succeed.
As we near the end of the “age of oil” our national, if not international, focus should rest on electrifiying our infrastructure, using our current hydrocarbon inventory to transition to this new system, and preparing the next generation of leaders and technicians to build and maintain it. Without a clear plan, we are heading for a financial and societal trian wreck. As much as I like to believe that a new technology will save the day, the rate of implementation of new technologies may not be scheduled with enough urgency to fight the exponential decline of non-renewable resources. Therefore, it is important to prepare for a “leaner” future focused on sustainable best-practices and resource conservation. I am counting on the ingenuity of the human species to vault us past this predicament and into a sustainable future.