Change in Nomenclature: “The Renewable Electron Economy”

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by: Michael Hoexter

I’ve been devoting this blog for the last 4 months to talking about the “electron economy”, how most of our energy needs can be satisfied by using electricity and electrical devices with minimal damage to the planet and our future well-being.

I am somewhere in the middle of my series of posts on the technical, marketing and political issues related to clean electric power and efficient electrical devices but a string of events in the real world and the world of ideas has highlighted for me the need to change terminology. Rather than advocate for an “electron economy” I am raising the stakes in the nomenclature department by adding the word “renewable” or “clean” (with and without parentheses) to the “electron economy” catch phrase. So henceforth I might use “renewable electron economy”, “clean electron economy”, “(renewable) electron economy” and “(clean) electron economy” interchangeably.

Ulf Bossel, the fuel cell engineer and sustainable energy advocate who invented the electron economy phrase and concept, brought an analysis of the relative energy efficiencies to bear on the choice of hydrogen, biofuels or electricity. He concluded based on electricity’s overall efficiency and availability of renewable sources of electricity that an electric energy delivery and conversion system would be the only system that has a reasonable chance of being the energy backbone of a future carbon-neutral economy. Biofuels and energy recovery from waste would be parts of a clean energy economy but would play smaller roles. Electricity has not enjoyed some of the marketing hype of biofuels or hydrogen but is the solution to most of the energy questions that are raised by climate change.

I’ve adopted the electron economy concept but have come to realize that forces and tendencies in the fossil fuel industries (primarily the coal industry), the electric power generation and electric manufacturers industries might easily twist the concept to serve shortsighted goals that increase our dependence on fossil fuels. As conceived by Ulf Bossel and adapted by myself, the electron economy concept has at its heart the use of contemporary renewable energy flux, not that of the Jurassic period, to generate electricity.

In the United States and in other coal-rich countries in an age of uncertain petroleum and calls for energy independence, coal will continue to function like crack (cocaine) for electricity generators, electricity consumers, and legislators who leave carbon emissions out of the picture. This was brought home graphically by recent attempts by the coal lobby in the United States to get support from Congress for subsidies for Coal to Liquid (CTL) as a substitute for petroleum. As I’ve discussed earlier, coal is the most carbon-intensive means of generating electricity, much more than even petroleum or natural gas, so coal to liquids will compound our climate woes while, as it is intended, reducing oil imports.

On the marketing front, General Electric has brought down its green marketing credentials a notch in my book by linking its Ecomagination brand with coal: in its latest commercial we see a lump of coal with legs claiming to the words of an old country song that it “will be a diamond someday”. Investigation on General Electric’s website indicates that this is the public face for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) coal power plants. On the website there are some slightly misleading claims that IGCC will reduce carbon dioxide emissions without adding that to reduce carbon dioxide emissions one would have to integrate an IGCC plant with, as they say in the car business, an optional carbon capture technology AND an optional carbon sequestration repository like an old salt mine (CCS). IGCC in and of itself will not reduce carbon emissions and those two options limit the siting of IGCC plants and raise the technical challenges and costs of use considerably. As of this moment in time, there are no existing large scale coal powered plants that are sequestering carbon dioxide.

Though I’m quite sure an IGCC plant would be a big contract for GE and I accept that coal with carbon capture and storage may play a transitional role to a fully renewable energy economy, not adding that carbon capture is an additional set of steps dumbs down the message unnecessarily. Furthermore, General Electric has an already established business in wind and hydroelectric turbines as well as photovoltaic that are in and of themselves carbon neutral means of generating electricity. Why not push ahead with innovations as well as publicity in these areas? General Electric, if it continues to position itself well, will be a key player in the renewable electron economy and will profit handsomely from efforts to mitigate carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. To advertise IGCC in this manner tends to further an “addiction to coal” and coal-generated electricity.

Jeff Goodell in his recent book “Big Coal” now in paperback, highlights how important coal producers are to the US electric industry and by extension to power consumers. With the US’s substantial coal reserves and the political power of coal producers and coal producing states, there exists a considerable danger that we will continue to rely on coal long past the time that we have the capability to generate electricity much more cleanly and even more cheaply. These coal advocates are also underestimating the inevitable price that carbon-dioxide emissions will carry.

A movement towards a moratorium on coal power plants without CCS is gaining momentum as now at least one of the 2008 US Presidential candidates (John Edwards) supports it as well as, as one might expect, Al Gore and the Live Earth initiative. Other candidates, like Barack Obama, have flirted with Big Coal though now appear to be backing down. The Democratic leaders of the US House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, just recently signed Al Gore’s Live Earth pledge that calls for a moratorium on coal without carbon capture.

It is in this context that calling for a positive solution, for a renewable electron economy to be built, shows the way for government, stakeholders in the electric industry and investors, to direct their energies in an effective way. Just calling for an “electron economy” with the renewable or clean portion assumed, underestimates the power of inertia as well as motivated opposition to solving the climate crisis by shutting down or transforming certain industry segments in favor of others.

To create a renewable electron economy is doable within 25 years, with substantial reductions in our emissions within 10 years. But we need to act now within our industries, our personal lives, through investments of time and money and through exercising political influence. Al Gore’s Live Earth Pledge is one place to start:

In the upcoming weeks, I will continue to sketch the future of energy and how concretely we can take steps now to reduce our carbon footprints through building the renewable electron economy.

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