Dear President Trump – What Are You Doing About Energy?

By Terry Hallmark, Instructional Assistant Professor, Honors College

Dear President Trump,

I thought I’d drop you a line. They had a symposium at the University of Houston recently on “The Future of Energy Policy.” It was good. Even tempered. A Democrat and Republican Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson and Democrat Rep. Gene Greeneven got along, and no one had a bad word to say about you.

That was refreshing, because lately everywhere I go on campus someone is cracking a joke every time your name is mentioned. Guess it’s because it’s a university campus – you know, where lots of left-leaning college professors hang out. A fellow who ran a bar in Brooklyn laughingly used to call professors “the Intelligenski,” because they think they’re smarter than everybody else. They can’t believe anybody would be foolish enough to pick you over Hillary. Well, I think they’re the fools. Plenty of folks voted for you – after all, you won – they’re just afraid to admit it. Maybe there needs to be something like Alcoholic Anonymous, you know, like Trump Supporters Anonymous –TSA – although it might get confused with the gang that makes you take your shoes off at the airport.

Seriously, the numbskulls who don’t like you say you’re dumb as a shovel, but you don’t get as rich as you are by being dumb – and besides, shovels are useful, especially when you’re digging holes. Plus, you’ve got the support of some smart, conservative academic types. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about a bunch of political scientists at the Claremont Colleges in California you’re apparently leaning on for advice. That’s where I got my Ph.D., so I know nearly all of them. Charles Kessler, who got most of the coverage in the article, was the chairman of my dissertation committee. He’s an expert on American Political Thought (back when Americans were thinking) and on the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers (the “go to” handbook on how the Constitution is supposed to work). He and his buddies will be handy.

And what about your cabinet appointees, especially those who know something about energy? Rex Tillerson was a bold pick as Secretary of State. I used to work in the oil industry for this outfit called IHS, and the firm has a week-long shindig every spring called CERAWeek, where all the energy execs hang out, network and give talks. It’s run by a member of your Strategic and Policy Forum, Dan Yergin. I spoke there once. Tillerson spoke there in 2015. He has a presence, as they say. He is an Eagle Scout, and he’s from Texas. That means he’s solid and will probably do a good job.

And since he used to run ExxonMobil, he knows energy and has experience with Vladimir Putin and other heavy-handed types. He also knows about oil exploration in garden spots like Chad and Equatorial Guinea – where the people don’t give a flip about their Size 3 carbon footprint and the leaders have names that are impossible to pronounce. (Try saying Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo three times fast.) I’m a little bit worried, though, because you’re both big time wheelers and dealers at the highest levels of Big Oil and Big Buildings. Hope you guys don’t have to have your egos shoehorned into the Oval Office just to have a chat.

I’m not quite as gung-ho about your pick for Secretary of Energy, Texas’ ex-Governor, Rick Perry (now a member of your National Security Council). Sure, he’s smarter than folks think, he’s won more races for governor than anybody in the state’s history, and Texas is a big energy state – but I still wonder why you picked him. I’m not sure he’s got what President George H.W. Bush used to call “the vision thing.” He’s run for your job twice, and you’ll remember he wanted to shut down the Energy Department. Now I guess he doesn’t. Kinky Friedman, this musician/comedian/writer from Austin, ran against Perry for governor a few years back and called him “Governor Good Hair.” Maybe that’s why you picked him. You clearly know a good ’do when you see one.

As far as the issues go, I think you’ve got some things right, including support for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. You’re going to take some heat from environmentalists, but don’t let that bother you. Those pipelines mean jobs for Americans, and don’t worry about all those reports casting doubt on that. If the Canadian oil intended for the Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t come here, it’ll go someplace else – like China. That’s no good.

Kudos to you, too, for being bullish on fracking. The country’s awash with shale oil and gas, and oil exports are back for the first time in years. Just when it looked like oil prices might put the kibosh on several fracking projects, low oil prices have allowed them to move forward. Voila, “Permania”! The giant shale play in the Permian Basin could have 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That means more oil on the market and lower crude oil prices, which give our friends in OPEC and the Russians a bad case of nerves. Good.

All the shale oil and natural gas showing up to the Energy Prom brings me to my last point. A decade ago everyone was babbling about “peak oil” and the evils of those God-forsaken, gas-guzzling Hummers. Now the issue is “peak demand,” and GM doesn’t even make Hummers anymore (they were ugly). In 2006, the US ranked 11th in the world in proven oil reserves. Now, thanks to the fracking boom and shale oil, the U.S. is Numero Uno. Check it out. America is great again.

A speaker at the UH symposium said oil and natural gas are cheap, reliable and plentiful sources of energy. He’s right, but that’s just for now. A decade’s nothing – just two years past the end of your next term in office. If nothing else, the last 10 years have shown us just how quickly things can change, and change is certainly in the air when it comes to energy. So, go long – take the blinders off and think about energy out 30 or 40 years. Don’t be afraid to cozy up to new sources of energy, including renewables like solar and wind. Not many people know it, but Texas produces more energy from wind than any other state (plenty of hot air). I’m afraid you’re going to have to finalize a split with coal, though. That miner’s daughter’s not coming back.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ve got to go fill up my car and then wade through as much of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as I can manage before noon (it’s a beast – be glad you don’t need to read it). Maybe I’ll write again sometime. Until then, I remain,

Yours in oil (crude, that is – with associated gas),

Politicus Maximus Texanus

Terry Hallmark is an Instructional Assistant Professor in the Honors College. He teaches the Human Situation sequence, along with courses in ancient, medieval and early modern political philosophy, American political thought, American foreign policy and energy studies. His current research is focused on the political rhetoric and writings of Will Rogers. Prior to his appointment in the Honors College, Dr. Hallmark worked in the international oil and gas industry, where he had a 30-year career as a political risk analyst. He has been an advisor to international oil exploration and service companies, financial institutions and governmental agencies, including the World Bank, U.S. Department of Defense and members of the intelligence community. He is the Honors College coordinator for the minor in Energy and Sustainability Studies.


The Cost Of Wind And Solar Intermittency

By Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management

Until relatively recently, generation of electricity with wind and solar has not been cost competitive. Growth has largely been due to subsidies and renewable energy mandates. Due to decreasing cost, wind and solar are now cost competitive with fossil fuels in favorable locations.

The continuing decrease in wind and solar costs is a very positive development. However, this trend may reverse as the percentage of variable renewable energy (VRE) energy that isn’t available on-demand but only at specific times, such as when the wind is blowingreaches high levels. Countries such as Germany that have integrated significant amounts of wind and solar have already seen price increases.

The levelized cost of electricity

Comparisons of electrical generation cost are usually based on the so-called levelized cost of energy (LCOE), an estimate of the total cost of generation expressed in dollars per megawatt hour ($/WMh). The calculation includes capital costs, operating and maintenance costs and fuel cost. It is affected by assumed utilization rate and interest rates.

The most widely cited levelized cost estimates are those of the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) and the investment firm Lazard. Although these estimates are useful for comparison, they exclude such costs as network upgrades, integration and transmission, which can become significant as renewables penetration increases. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) put it in the context of integrating variable renewable energy, “comparison based on LCOE is no longer sufficient and can be misleading.”

Levelized cost estimates are based on a large number of assumptions, not least of which is the future cost of fossil fuels. There are some differences in these estimates, with Lazard showing unsubsidized utility scale solar and onshore wind as competitive with natural gas and the EIA not.

The table shows national averages. For wind and solar, location is very important; they are in places locally cheaper than natural gas combined cycle. For the purposes of this discussion, these differences are not significant. The more important point is the added cost of factors not included in the levelized cost.

The sources of integration costs

As described by Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson, “any electricity system must be able to respond to changes in demand over seconds, minutes, hours, seasons and years, and must be able to accommodate unanticipated changes in the availability of generation.” Traditionally, this is handled by base load and peak load plants, which handle the minimum load and increases above that level, respectively. This is an oversimplification, since supply is managed by the minute using a variety of sources with different response times.

Wind and solar are non-dispatchable, meaning that they are not under the control of the operator. They only generate electricity when the wind blows or the sun shines. This adds integration costs, shown conceptually below.

Source: Ueckerdt, 2015

 When variable sources are a small fraction of electricity supply, the cost of integration is low. The current level of deployment is below thresholds where the cost of dealing with intermittency becomes significant.

There are numerous possible solutions to intermittency. These include diversification, redundancy, storage and demand shifting. That redundancy and storage add cost is obvious. Diversification also adds cost in control equipment and transmission capability between geographically separated sources.

Demand shifting can theoretically lower cost by reducing the peak capacity needed. It is often discussed jointly with efficiency improvement under the term demand-side management.

One issue in demand management is illustrated in this graph of daily load for a location in Australia. Solar is only available when the sun shines and peaks around midday. As solar generation increases, the average load on the remainder of the system decreases, but the peak is barely affected. Dispatchable sources must make up the difference between the midday low and the evening and morning peaks. This relationship is called the “duck curve.”

Source: Ledwich 2015

Measures to shift usage from peak periods include education, jawboning, differential pricing and control of end use by the utility through the smart grid. Education, jawboning and even differential pricing have had limited success to date. Time of day pricing and end-use control require a smart grid, with attendant cost.

Wind power typically will generate throughout the day, but it has its own limitations. It is less predictable, more variable over short periods than solar, may be seasonal and may need to be shut down when the wind is too strong.

The graph below shows generation for one day on the island of Crete. Renewables penetration reaches a peak of 60%, accommodated by curtailment of diesel and gas generation. Even so, average annual renewable share is only 20%, and some difficulties were encountered during peak renewables generation periods.

The Crete example is typical of existing systems in that balancing is done with fossil fuels. Balancing may also be done by dispatchable renewable energy, primarily hydroelectric and biomass, and with storage.

What’s the best generation mix?

Due to the wide variety of generating sources and unique local circumstances, there is considerable flexibility in the design of generating systems. The trade-offs in cost and environmental benefit are complex.

Hundreds of studies which address increasing the share of renewables have been published. These vary greatly in scope and sophistication. Some do not include cost analysis or ignore integration costs. Adequate analysis of high levels of variable generation requires that balancing demand within short time frames be included.

The sample of published scenarios below illustrates the wide range of possible combinations. Wind and solar range from less than 20% to over 80%. The mix is influenced by availability of other sources, and by ideology.

Source: Modified from Cochran 2014

Big differences result from design choices, such as whether expansion or retention of some fossil fuels are included. Accepting periods of inadequate capacity is also a factor.

Most scenarios with high percentages of renewables rely on substantial reduction in growth of electricity demand. It’s questionable how realistic this is, particularly if strong growth in electric automobiles is anticipated.

What is the integration threshold?

There is no threshold, per se. The cost of managing intermittency is nonlinear and depends upon the mix and location of dispatchable and non-dispatchable sources, the match of local demand patterns with variable source pattern, and various other factors.

Based on model studies of Germany and Indiana, Falko Ueckerdt found integration costs began to become significant at 20%. As of 2015, only four countries have variable renewable energy over 20%.

Hawaii Electric recently approached 50% renewables; however, the share of wind and solar was only about 15%. Even so, they have requested a 6.9% rate increase based partly on the cost of renewables integration, and estimate the cost of grid upgrades necessary to reach 100% renewables as $8 billion.

Champions of wind and solar have characterized integration cost estimates as ploys to discourage renewable energy, but integration costs are real.

Isn’t it being done already?

The poster child for variable renewable energy is Denmark, reported to be over 50% in 2015. Denmark’s success is often used to illustrate that high levels are readily achievable. This is misleading in that Denmark is a small country tied into the European grid. Variable wind power is balanced with hydroelectric and other sources in adjacent countries. De facto share for the system is lower. Denmark’s installed wind capacity ranks ninth among EU countries and represents less than 4% of EU.

Source: EIA 2016

Germany’s combined wind and solar has the largest capacity in Europe and is second highest per capita. Despite Germany’s progress, the share of variable renewable energy for electrical generation is less than 25% and has been achieved at significant cost. The renewable energy surcharge is 22% of household electricity price.

Even at relatively low levels of renewables share, there is a clear correlation between the share of variable renewable energy and the retail price of electricity. This is largely due to feed-in tariffs and net metering, which transfer renewable subsidies costs to the retail customer.

 The range of published integration cost estimates at higher shares of wind and solar is very broad and dependent upon both parameter assumptions and model structure. I will discuss these in a later post.

Earl J. Ritchie is a retired energy executive and teaches a course on the oil and gas industry at the University of Houston. He has 35 years’ experience in the industry. He started as a geophysicist with Mobil Oil and subsequently worked in a variety of management and technical positions with several independent exploration and production companies. Ritchie retired as Vice President and General Manager of the offshore division of EOG Resources in 2007. Prior to his experience in the oil industry, he served at the US Air Force Special Weapons Center, providing geologic and geophysical support to nuclear research activities.

America Still Uses A Lot Of Nonrenewable Energy: The Pros And Cons

By Debora Rodrigues, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

There is a lot of talk about the rapid growth of renewable energy, including wind and solar. It can be easy to forget that at least for now, we still rely heavily on nonrenewable energy sources, such as oil, natural gas, coal and uranium.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the western standard of living without fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and many developing nations still struggle to be able to generate enough power to serve their populations. Nonrenewable energy – especially coal – enabled the industrial revolution and has traditionally been the cheapest way to improve standards of living for people in far flung corners of the earth.

These old-school sources of energy each have their pros and cons, but I think the transformation to renewables will come more quickly than many people think. With a new fossil fuel-friendly presidential administration and growing global concern over climate change, the issue of what forms of energy we should use, and for how long, may be the subject of a hot debate.

I’ve outlined the basics of what people need to know about nonrenewable energy to adapt to a changing energy future:


Hydrocarbons – oil, natural gas and coal – have been produced over millions of years, transforming the buried remains of ancient plants and animals into the products we use to power modern life. Uranium is a naturally occurring element.


100% Renewable Energy? Here’s Why It’s Not Happening Anytime Soon

By Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management

In an earlier post, I established that, with massive effort, it would be possible to generate all electricity and a substantial fraction of transportation energy with renewable fuels. The pace of conversion is said to depend upon political will.

“Will” is not the correct term. Will implies both desire and determination. A substantial fraction of the public do not have the desire. Some do not think it is necessary, some do not want to sacrifice conveniences, some are not willing or able to pay. On one hand, there is a highly vocal contingent that believes anthropogenic climate change is literally a life or death issue; on the other hand, there are groups that do not see it as a major problem or have a vested interest in the existing energy structure. It is difficult to predict the relative influence these two radically different viewpoints will have on how quickly it will happen.

Public Support

The Gallup Poll results for the past several years show that only about 40% of Americans believe global warming will be a serious threat to them personally. A 2015 Pew poll indicates higher concern internationally, with 54% saying that climate change is a very serious problem and 78% saying greenhouse gases should be limited.

There is a strong component of political orientation in support for carbon reduction measures, both in the U.S. and internationally. In the Pew poll, Democrats score approximately 2 to 3 times higher on questions of climate change concern. The pace of carbon reduction will be significantly influenced by which party is in power.


Expression of concern says nothing directly about willingness to spend on carbon reduction or change lifestyle. For example, the average size of American houses continues to increase. Three-fourths of Americans drive to work alone, and electric and plug-in hybrid cars are currently less than 1% of U.S. auto and light truck sales. The strong correlation between subsidies and renewable energy spending indicates the pocketbook is more important than the environment.

The majority of people just don’t put their money where their mouth is.

What will happen?

It’s hardly earthshaking to predict the outcome will fall between predicted extremes. A couple of observations can be safely made:

  1. It will happen faster than supporters of traditional energy sources think. There is already considerable support at the government level and the decreasing cost of renewables will favor their use.
  2. It won’t happen as fast as the proponents of 100% renewables predict. The rapid growth of solar and wind power is largely due to projects supported by other people’s money. As cumulative cost increases, there will be resistance by those paying the freight. This is already happening. The technical and economic barriers that begin to become important with a higher share of renewables will slow implementation further.

Perhaps the best indicators of the pace in the near term are the pledges made in the Paris Agreement. While the agreement is hailed as a milestone, it is generally recognized that the INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), if implemented, will not decrease CO2 emissions, will not keep global warming below 2 degrees C, and will not mean the end of fossil fuels. CO2 equivalent emissions rates expected to be attained through the agreement are indicated by the red bars in this graph from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Emissions increase throughout the commitment period and end well above the historical levels shown in dark gray.


Note also that limiting warming to 2 degrees C requires the sharp decrease, shown in aqua, immediately after the end of the commitment period. This pattern is the same as has been the case since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990: Each report says we have to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately. Although estimated CO2 emissions have recently flattened, measured greenhouse gas concentrations not only have not decreased, they have continued to increase at an accelerating rate. The discrepancy may be due to errors in the estimate or reporting of fossil fuel consumption from the various countries but, in any case, there is no indication in the measurements that emissions have actually decreased.

The effect of the Paris Agreement on fossil fuel consumption is illustrated by this graph of oil consumption in the IEA New Policies Scenario, which incorporates the INDCs. The growth rate through 2040 is about 0.5 % annually, about one third of historical but still increasing. Natural gas (not shown) grows at 3 %.


Even the IEA 450 scenario, consistent with a 2 degree target, leaves oil consumption in 2040 above that in 2000. Natural gas grows at close to 1 %.

Barring a drastic change in policy, we will not get anywhere near 100 % renewables by 2050. Low carbon energy sources will likely be less than 40 % of total energy supply; the “new renewables,” wind, water, and solar, will be less than 15 %. This is not a happy scenario for those who worry about anthropogenic climate change. Several analyses of the impact of the INDCs forecast global warming in the range of 2.7 degrees to 3.5 degrees by 2100. Since the commitment period ends in 2030, such analyses require assumptions of actions beyond that date.

Of course, other predictions are possible. Expectations of faster replacement of fossil fuels rely upon more optimistic assumptions of adoption of government policies, speed of implementation, reduction in energy demand, and the availability of funding. Other conditions – not strictly necessary, but probably realistically needed – are continued significant reductions in the cost of renewables and improvements in energy storage methods and carbon capture and storage.

The public has not shown much willingness to sacrifice, unless it’s someone else making the sacrifice. I don’t have a crystal ball but getting even as high as 50 % renewables by 2050 seems highly unlikely to me.

The Shift To Renewables: How Far, How Fast?

By Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management

Powering the United States or the world with 100% renewable energy is the stated goal of many individuals and organizations. What they are really talking about is 100% renewables to generate electricity, because it’s not feasible in the near-term to replace motor fuels with renewables. Views of how quickly this can be done are highly polarized – some predict less than two decades, while others see fossil fuels as the dominant source at least through 2050.

The primary argument for renewable energy is to avoid anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change by reducing CO2 emissions. Progress toward that goal has fallen well short of reductions believed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) to be necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. In fact, the only year in the past 40 in which CO2 emissions decreased was the first full year of the 2008 recession. The rate of growth of carbon emissions has slowed over the past five years, however, giving proponents of carbon reduction some encouragement.

Let’s look at some of the claims of the feasibility of going to 100% renewables.

How quickly can it be done?

In a 2008 speech, former Vice President Al Gore said it was “achievable, affordable and transformative” to generate all electricity in in the United States using wind, solar and other renewable sources within 10 years. One might dismiss this as political hyperbole, and it has not happened.

A claim that arguably has a better technical basis appeared in a widely publicized November 2009Scientific American article by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, professors at Stanford University and the University of California respectively. They suggested all electrical generation and ground transportation internationally could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources as early as 2030. Even that is wildly optimistic, since the median of the most optimistic of the projections in the latest IPCC assessment has low carbon sources (which include nuclear, hydro, geothermal and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage) generating only 60% of world energy supplies by 2050; wind, water and solar are less than 15%.

In a 2015 report addressing only the U.S., Jacobson, Delucchi, and co-authors revised the schedule to 80-85% renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2050. As with nearly all low carbon scenarios, their plan depends heavily on reducing energy demand through efficiency improvements.

Other forecasts are considerably less optimistic. Two examples: the 2015 MIT Energy and Climate Outlook has low carbon sources worldwide as only 25% of primary energy by 2050, and renewables only 16%; the International Energy Agency’s two-degree scenario has renewables, including biomass, as less than 50%. Even the pledges of the widely praised Paris Agreement of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) leave fossil fuels near 75% of energy supply in 2030, when the commitments end.

How are we doing?

Growth of renewables as a fraction of the overall energy supply has been slow, although recent growth of wind and solar is impressive. This graph shows the annual growth rate of renewables in the U.S. since 1980 as less than 2%.

Primary Energy Production, 1980-2015

Since 2007, wind and solar have grown over 20% per year in absolute terms, and about 15% as a percent of supply. There was no growth in other renewables during that period. The international numbers are similar.

What is possible?

Proponents of renewable energy are fond of saying that 100% renewable is technically feasible; it only requires political will. With some caveats, this is true. There is theoretically enough sunlight and wind, and a growth rate of 20% means a doubling every four years. If sustained, this would mean we could have 500 times the existing amount of wind and solar by 2050. However, there are both economic and technical barriers.

The rapid growth of renewables in both the United States and Europe has been due in large part to subsidies that make investment in renewables highly profitable. As installed capacity has increased, both state and national governments have tended to cut subsidies, resulting in substantial decreases in renewable investments.

Investment in Renewable Power and Fuels

Per the United Nations Environment Programme, worldwide new investment in renewable energyhas been basically flat for the past five years. This overall view masks substantial local and regional differences. Investment in the developed countries has declined about 30% since the 2011 peak, while investment in the developing countries has almost doubled.

Technical barriers to wind and solar are largely the result of intermittency and the location of favorable areas. Intermittency is not a problem as long as the proportion of renewable energy is small and excess capacity exists in conventional generating plants. It begins to become a problem when intermittent sources reach 30% of capacity and is very significant when it reaches 50%. The numbers are somewhat variable depending upon the makeup of existing plants. A 2008 report of the House of Lords estimated that reaching 34% of renewable energy in the United Kingdom, largely with wind power, would raise electricity costs 38%. The cost goes up as the share of variable renewables increases due to storage and grid flexibility requirements.

Intermittency can theoretically be handled by diversification of sources, load shifting, overbuilding capacity, and storage. All add cost. Diversification on a broad scale would require substantial changes to the energy grid. Storage on a utility scale is in an early stage of development, so costs remain uncertain. A large number of technologies exist, with varying estimated costs and applicability.

A 2012 Deutsche Bank report estimated that renewables plus storage could be competitive in Germany by 2025, however, the calculation included a carbon tax, effectively a subsidy for renewables. Any such comparisons of future costs depend upon assumptions of technological improvements and fossil fuel costs.

100% renewable electricity generation is technically feasible. However, even if you assume cost competitiveness, money has to be spent in the near-term to not only add capacity but to replace existing plants. In the industrialized countries, this is not an insurmountable problem but it does require allocation of funds that have competing demands. In some developing countries, there is just not money available.

Some proponents of accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels advocate a massive effort, which they call a “moon shot” or compare to World War II. But this transition requires a great deal more effort than the moon shot, and there is serious question whether there is political motivation comparable to World War II. I’ll talk about that in a future post.

Earl J. Ritchie is a retired energy executive and teaches a course on the oil and gas industry at the University of Houston. He has 35 years’ experience in the industry. He started as a geophysicist with Mobil Oil and subsequently worked in a variety of management and technical positions with several independent exploration and production companies. Ritchie retired as Vice President and General Manager of the offshore division of EOG Resources in 2007. Prior to his experience in the oil industry, he served at the US Air Force Special Weapons Center, providing geologic and geophysical support to nuclear research activities.

The New Year May Bring A New Focus On Alternative Forms Of Energy

By Nairah Hashmi, Student Energy Fellow Ambassador

With the costs of solar technology development and solar panel installation dropping, will 2016 see a significant rise in the use of this alternative form of energy? The answer is yes.

Government policy, which has contributed to the increased use of renewable energy in the past few years, will continue to have a positive impact on solar energy in upcoming years. Just last month, Congress granted an extension to the 30 percent investment tax credit for the U.S. solar industry. The Solar Energy Industries Association predicts that solar generation will quadruple by 2020, supplying enough electricity to power 20 million homes and adding $132 billion to the American economy.

That’s a lot of solar.

Now that cost is becoming less of a barrier to the use of solar technology, the power of the sun may be employed more creatively in the future.

The other day, one of my classmates showed me an interesting example. Mahesh Rathi, a businessman in Mumbai, India, has developed a solution for street vendors who sell refrigerated goods, such as ice cream and cold water, in the heat of summer. His ‘Smart Kart’ refrigeration model relies on solar power to charge a battery that can last for over 24 hours.

Usually when I think of solar power, I associate it with stationary panels. However, an on-the-go solar model such as that envisioned by Rathi could easily become a practical and portable alternative. Two-way power calculators have been around a long time, where solar and battery-generated energy both contribute to power a calculator. But what if cellphones could function on two-way power? Or laptops?

One crucial advantage of solar is its usefulness as a power source in rural areas, where it costs less to install solar cells than to build a centralized grid and new distribution lines. I currently volunteer with a nonprofit organization, Sawayra Inc., which aims to empower people in poverty with low-cost solutions for basic necessities such as electricity and water. I stumbled across Sawayra, a relatively new organization, while looking for opportunities to gain experience in the field I am studying, engineering. It has been a mutually beneficial experience, as I am finally able to apply engineering principles to real life problems outside of the classroom.

One of Sawayra’s main projects involves providing homes in the rural village of Rashidabad, Pakistan, with their own water-generating units.

The design model my team is working on consists of an air dehumidifier that has been modified to run on power from a solar panel. The model should be able to produce enough water daily that a family can use it for drinking and cooking. Solar power is relatively easy to set up, and therefore makes this project more feasible. The project is still in its early stages, but my team hopes to produce a working prototype by the end of the year, with help from local engineers and students in Pakistan.

Although traditional hydrocarbon-based energy will likely remain the largest source of energy over the next few decades, there are several indicators of a rapid rise in the use of renewables including solar.

Renewed tax credits for solar and wind energy, rising global concerns about climate change and the reduced costs of installing and operating solar energy all point to a future where renewables pose a convenient solution in regions other than the most poverty-stricken ones targeted by nonprofits like Sawayra.

Nairah Hashmi is an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in chemical engineering with a minor in chemistry. She joined the energy ambassador program in August, 2015 and was appointed Student Energy Fellow Ambassador.