Sunday, January 29, 2023

Energy, Sustainability and Innovation: Getting Better and Better

There is nothing high-tech about a dozen eggs or toilet paper, but inflation and supply chain issues reached even those grocery aisles. Add a chip (and I don’t mean a potato chip) to anything and who knows what it will cost and when we’ll get it.  Those of us who work in the energy, sustainability and innovation space can’t lose heart—there is too much at stake.

Let’s start with energy costs.  The natural gas commodity market has been up, and that has meant not just higher heating bills across the country, but higher costs for making just about any widget. States across the country, including Georgia, are due for expansive grid improvements, including new power plants like the Vogtle carbon-free nuclear plant.  That means electric bills rise to cover plant construction, transformer upgrades, new transmission lines and smart technology—to name a few.

But thank God for smart devices, Energy Star appliances, spray foam insulation, higher SEER HVAC units and a whole cast of other devices that can mitigate rising prices.  In Georgia, the pre-pay rate we have for customers save an average of 11% per year—and all customers have to do is receive communication once-per-day about their usage and balance.  It is not always about rocket science.  Sometimes it is just about turning off the lights.

There is move afoot to eventually replace coal and gas units with advanced nuclear and hydrogen technology—keeping it dispatchable and not subject to the intermittency of most renewables.  The Department of Energy has stood up a robust loan office led by the brilliant Jigar Shah.  They have loads of money and looking for viable projects.  I am co-leading the Hydrogen Energy Braintrust with Senator Jon Ossoff, also from Georgia, hoping to land some of the cash here in the Peach State. In many ways, hydrogen is the perfect fuel for storage, chemicals, materials, transportation, and of course, blending with methane—reducing that carbon footprint.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian crisis has had a compounding effect on energy prices.  As Europe tried to wean itself off Russian gas, they imported more from the United States, and that impacted our supply, causing prices to rise here. Prices are now starting to come down as supplies rebuild with forecasts pointing to temperatures above seasonal norms.  Meanwhile, the move to electrification, both for heat pumps and EVs, puts more pressure on anything that produces an electron.

Speaking of Ukraine, Techcet estimates that about half of the world’s semiconductor-grade neon comes from two Ukrainian companies, Ingas and Cryoin.  Who cares about neon besides vintage stores?  Dah, all of us. It is critical for the lasers used to make the aforementioned chips.   An auto industry exec told me the other day that the new car I was looking at had over 1000 chips.  Our high-tech world is so dependent on these little guys.

Electric vehicle infrastructure, which also impacts the grid, is in its infancy.  The pandemic, supply chain constraints and consumer hesitation may keep this baby in the play pen a little while longer.  I have had six electric vehicles over the last 10 years, and consider myself a technology pioneer willing to make sacrifices.  But the average person out there will not tolerate broken chargers, wild price fluctuations in charging costs and the overall inconvenience that most non-Tesla drivers experience.  Kudos to Musk and company for building out their proprietary network. Hopefully the rest of industry will learn from you.

Finally, Solar continues to grow—especially in Georgia.  We are striving to be in the top five states in the Nation in the next few years.  Surprisingly, our solar, especially that in rural Georgia, is some of our most economical energy in the state. While some utilities in other states pay more for utility scale solar, our Public Service Commission created a more sustainable approach than our West Coast friends—without placing subsidies on non-solar customers. But adding solar in rural areas means that we must build more infrastructure to move the power where needs are growing—and that would be our big city load centers.

It is a great time to be alive, and opportunities abound.  And with this younger generation coming along, maybe we can catch some of their passion for taking care of our environment and leaving the place better than we found it.

For more about how this topic, listen to my “Energy Matters with Commissioner Echols” podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

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