David Crane - The Switch Interview

Coal is the workhorse of baseload generation in the United States. David Crane discusses the major role that power plays in the energy systems of America.

Transcript

- Coal, as a percentage of electricity in the U.S., is about 50% of the total. And, so, it's the workhorse of base load generation in the United States. - [Interviewer] How does that look globally? - Globally, the number would be larger and I think the most important thing is if we look forward rather than backward, the fastest growing big economies in the world, particularly China and India are, I think, more like 70% coal. And as they plan for their future growth, it's probably going to be more, not less. My view on coal, I'm a bit nuanced on coal and I would say I'm a raging moderate on most things. The idea, for instance, that you get from the far left of the energy spectrum in the United States is that this country could power itself exclusively by renewables, mainly wind and solar, is a fanciful dream. But I do think that if you add nuclear and natural gas into the mix, it's conceivable if the country set, as a national priority, getting rid of coal, then 30 years from now we could have no coal generation in this country at all. But the thing is, there's no conceivable way that even if the United States goes to zero coal, that you're gonna stop China and India from building coal plants. And overall, carbon emissions from coal will go up globally. And they call it global warming because it's global. The minute you figure out the best way to get the carbon out of that coal, instantaneously you have a multi billion dollar market, maybe a trillion dollar market for your technology. - So post combustion is scrubbing the CO two out of the stack, after you've burnt it and-- - Scrubbing, capturing, getting it embedded in something. One idea obviously is to create a pure carbon stream, separating it from the flogas. And then geological sequestration underground. I think the other main paradigm is that you actually capture the carbon in building material. So roadways, asphalt, concrete. - Something that we can actually do? - I think that we could be going there but you need a price on carbon, because the free market capitalist system that we work with, it doesn't solve for things that have no price associated with it. The first wave of electric vehicles that are sold in this country are gonna be discretionary purchases. Remember back in the mid 80s, when cell phones were-- - A novelty. - A novelty. - [Interviewer] They were just the size of a brick. - And you could only use them in certain places. But for what they were, they were very convenient. And suddenly people are gonna wake up one day and say, "Why do I need to have "every car that's able to drive across the country? "I'm only gonna drive across the country "in one car at one time, maybe once every 20 years." So you'll get to the point where people will have multiple electric vehicles and then they'll have one internal combustion vehicle for long distance, inter city travel. What people don't understand is that everyone likes the concept of electric vehicles but they think it's 20 years away. It's not 20 years, it's here, it's here right now. - What do we do with all those batteries? - First of all I'm pretty sure that these batteries are gonna be subject to a high degree of recycling. Initially they're saying that they think the battery life is gonna be five, six, seven, years. And then the battery will still have a lot of use as a battery, it just won't have the performance characteristics that are sufficient to make it in cars. Smart meters, I think go through three stages of evolution. First it's a source of information by electricity. I don't think anyone wants to pay for that. Second stage, you get smart meters that can turn on and off, things at your house. - With or without you. - Yeah, with or without you, on their own. But then, where a smart meter's really home is where the electric vehicle. We have four million cars in the Houston area. If a million of them were electric cars, that's a million batteries that are sitting tethered to the grid for 22 hours a day. If at 3:00 in the afternoon the meter tells that car that the grid is overloading from the air conditioning load, then that car can do one of two things. If it's in its' home garage, and this is what I think is very practical, it takes that house off the grid. And it runs the electricity in the house to the refrigerator or the air conditioner off the battery of the car. You know, there's a vision of this country's energy future, again, that comes out of the far left of the political movement that says 90 miles of the Sonoran Desert covered in mirrors. And then we move it everywhere across the country, all the way to New York City on a high voltage transmission system, that sort of parallels the national highway system. - [Interviewer] Doable? - Not doable, not realistic, not going to happen. Why I may not believe that you can bring solar thermal power from Arizona to New York City, I may believe that you can bring solar thermal power by high voltage transmission lines to Los Angeles. So I think that on a select basis, they should be looking at high voltage corridors from a chosen energy source to a local load center. So I don't believe in one national grid, but I do believe that there needs to be strengthening of the high voltage system, mainly to bring large scale nuclear base load power from the sites where you can site nuclear to the local load centers. What I call the pragmatic wing of the environmental movement, and Environmental Defense Fund is certainly one of the leaders in that area, they recognize that you cannot get to 80% carbon reduction, worldwide by 2050, while assuming that there's gonna be growth, economic growth, without a whole lot of nuclear plants. - And what are the downsides to nuclear? What are the big objections? There's no CO two emissions, so what are the other problems? - There are not only no CO two emissions, of course, there's no sulfur emissions, there's no NOX, so acid rain, ozone, you're zeroed out on everything with nuclear. Obviously the two things that people talk about, one is the waste disposal. And I would say we've got this solution that's good for 100 to 200 years, dry cast storage, let's use it. Because we don't have 50 to 100 years to solve the global warming problems. The second question, nuclear proliferation is, the United States went down the path of using low enriched Uranium in American nuclear plants because it was difficult to turn that type of fuel into bomb material. I mean, if you think where the world is today, since the 1970s, all sorts of countries have nuclear weapons, first of all. And there's all sorts of fissile material that's coming out of the old Soviet Union. There was an article in Time magazine I seen the other day, I think there's more than 1,000 pounds of bomb grade Uranium or Plutonium in Kazakhstan. So if you're trying to get your hands on some weapons grade fuel, are you gonna go to an American civil reactor? Or you gonna try and get it out of Kazakhstan? My bet's on the latter. - I mean, why are they so expensive to build? - Well I think there are a couple things. One is the price tag for a nuclear plant is enormous because the plant's themselves are enormous. Second is if you saw the quality and the redundancy that goes into a nuclear plant in terms of the design and the fail safe systems, you would be very much comforted. But the third thing, and this is the good news, is that having not built a nuclear plant in this country, for 30 years, the first ones that get built, first of all, they'll have to rely on importation of a lot of key equipment. And of course, everything's gonna be done for the first time, in terms of resurrecting the supply chain. If we built a wave of nuclear plants, you can see the costs coming down. And I've heard estimates of the overall cost for new nuclear construction, coming down by 30 or 40 percent, if we start building. - [Interviewer] Just the economies of scale? - Economies of scale. Natural Gas is the fossil fuel that environmentalists love to love. Because it's cleaner than coal. It doesn't have the sort of scary issues that some people think surround nuclear power. And it's more domestic. So you're not sendi

  

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