By Hudson Sangree
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Solar and wind will replace fossil fuels. Big batteries will store renewable energy. And every new vehicle sold will be electric.
The 1,000 or so attendees at CAISO’s Stakeholder Symposium got a glimpse of what the future could hold from visionaries, venture capitalists and carmakers during the event’s 10th anniversary at the Sacramento Convention Center.
“If we come back here in 2030 or 2040, we won’t even recognize the grid,” said Ron Dembo, a former Yale University professor and high-tech entrepreneur who kicked off the event as its keynote speaker.
Dembo’s message was to prepare for the unpredictable. He gave the example of a forest fire so fierce that it could jump a major freeway and burn down an urban neighborhood. That happened last year in Santa Rosa, Calif., but many experts would have called it highly unlikely before it occurred, he said.
“We’re moving into a more volatile world, and that requires a different way of looking at things,” he said.
Dembo and Mark Rothleder, CAISO’s vice president of market quality and renewable integration, said factors such as global temperatures, renewable energy and regional collaboration would guide the future grid. (See Can Calif. Go All Green Without a Western RTO?)
Other speakers warned about the dangers of climate change but laid out options that could limit global warming in the decades ahead.
Brian Davis, vice president of energy solutions at Shell’s New Energies business, explained the company’s Sky Scenario, a roadmap for meeting the goals of the international Paris Agreement and keeping global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, primarily through the “deep electrification” of energy systems.
The company’s plan envisions moving to all-electric light transportation, a vast reduction in energy derived from oil and an equivalent increase in solar and wind production, and an end to deforestation and reforesting an area the size of Brazil.
Though extremely challenging, “it’s technically, economically and industrially possible to do it,” Davis, the conference’s final speaker, told the audience.
Between Dembo’s and Davis’ big-picture perspectives, panelists got down to the nuts and bolts of shaping tomorrow’s grid today.
Dan Richard, chairman of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority, said the controversial multibillion-dollar project, should be a way that the state’s 40 million residents, regardless of income, can travel up and down the state at 200 mph.
“So all Californians can benefit from this,” Richard said as part of a three-person panel on the electrification of the transportation sector and the future of mobility. “We don’t want this to be the Lexus train.”
The high-speed rail project has begun construction near Fresno, one of the state’s more affordable urban areas, and could put residents of that Central California city within commuting distance of jobs in Los Angeles, Richard and others said.
The rail line is one of outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown’s big infrastructure projects and has been criticized as an expensive boondoggle by many residents and elected officials. Richard said it’s a problem of imagination.
“People can’t imagine having high-speed rail” and what it will mean for them, he said.
One critic from Fresno acknowledged to Richard that it could mean that she and her husband could go to San Francisco for dinner and a show and be home by bedtime, he said.
China has built 8,000 miles of high-speed rail lines in only 15 years, and anyone who’s seen it quickly comprehends the benefits, he said.
Janea Scott, one of the five members of the California Energy Commission, moderated the transportation panel. She pointed out the problem of making electric transportation available to lower-income residents, for whom electric cars remain unaffordable and impractical.
Adam Langton, an electric vehicle expert with BMW of North America, said installing charging stations in lower-income neighborhoods would help, but that electric busses and trains should also be part of the solution.
“Think about electric miles,” he said.
Creating Utility-scale Storage
A separate panel, moderated by CAISO Director of Regional Integration Phil Pettingill, talked about EVs in the context of stored energy.
In 2018, demand for lithium-ion batteries for vehicles exceeded the demand for batteries for consumer electronics, said Yayoi Sekine, who leads the Americas coverage for Bloomberg’s energy storage practice. The demand for EV batteries has shot up rapidly and will increase to 1,500 GW of storage by 2030, she said.
A major problem now is how to store enough renewable energy to charge those car batteries and supply other energy needs after the sun sets. Solar generation is becoming less expensive and more abundant, especially in California, but it ramps up when it’s often least needed in the daytime and must be stored to meet peak evening and early-morning demand.
“Once you have enough batteries, you’re soaking up the solar,” Sekine said.
Sekine and her fellow panelist Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said they believed bigger and less costly lithium-ion batteries were the best bet for large-scale storage going forward.
“The technology that works today and is dropping in cost is lithium-ion,” Chiang said.
However, he said scientists should look to cheaper and far more plentiful chemical components such as sulfur and saline for batteries. Future energy storage could end up looking more like chemical factories, with building-size vats connected by pipes and wire, than blocky batteries, he said.
“I think we’re on the cusp of significant growth in grid-scale storage.”
Investing for the Future
Carbon reduction is bound to be another growth area, said Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in social, economic and environmental change.
Pfund’s advice to investors was to “follow the carbon.” The past century was optimized for carbon, she said. “The next century will be optimized for carbon reduction and avoidance,” she said.
Fighting climate change will mean monetizing carbon reduction for private industry rather than relying on environmental groups and governments. In addition to transportation, agriculture is a major sector that produces atmospheric carbon and is ripe for technologies to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
Pfund was joined on the symposium’s investment panel by Jill Anderson, vice president of customer programs and services with Southern California Edison, and Jackie Biskupski, mayor of Salt Lake City. The panel was moderated by Dede Hapner, formerly Pacific Gas and Electric’s vice president of FERC and ISO relations.
CAISO Chairman David Olsen said California’s ambitious goal of getting all of its energy from renewable and other zero-carbon sources by 2045 would require “electrifying just about everything.” And Valerie Fong, chair of the ISO’s Western Energy Imbalance Market, said, “Our industry is changing at an unprecedented rate.”
Wrapping up the conference, Shell’s Davis said it’s a remarkably dynamic time to be part of the electricity sector, as evidenced by the symposium’s discussion topics.
“Who would have thought 20 or 30 years ago the energy industry was an exciting place to work?” Davis said.