Simplicity extra: The full climate change chat

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In this week's Simplicity column, I chat with Chuck Kutscher, director of the Buildings and Thermal Systems Center at Golden's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), ahead of his Tuesday, Feb. 24 presentation in Colorado Springs, "Climate Change: The Latest Science, Why It's Serious, and What We Can Do About It."

In our print and web editions, we share only a few highlights from the talk, but those interested in hearing more of Kutscher's thoughts on a variety of green topics may find a full (unedited) transcript of the interview below. Kutscher weighs in on everything from the supposed world's greenest building to solar concentrators, associated bird kill and financial incentives that should make renewable options a no-brainer in the future. 


Indy: What’s something exciting going on at NREL right now?
Kutscher: I lead the buildings and thermal systems sector. One of the most exciting things that we’re doing now is recognizing that renewable energy is providing a larger and larger fraction of the electricity used in this country. And as we to get to larger and larger penetrations it becomes a challenge for utilities to make sure that they’re providing steady reliable electricity when we have variable photovoltaics and variable wind on the system. So we have a new building called the energy systems integration facility at NREL that’s dedicated to working with manufacturers, utilities and others to come up with ways to ensure that penetration of renewables on the grid is very reliable.
And one of the things we’re doing in the buildings area is looking at how — you know buildings use about 40 percent of our country’s energy and about three quarters of our electricity. And so we’re looking at ways that smart appliances and other types of equipment in homes and buildings can respond in a way that enables this variable renewable penetration on the grid.

What are some actions we can take at home to make meaningful energy reductions?
Because buildings use so much of our energy, it makes sense to use basic conservation techniques, certainly when you’re replacing your lights or even sooner. Transfer over to energy-efficient lighting. Compact fluorescents are available and LED’s are now very attractive, they’re coming down in cost. They use a lot less electricity and produce less heat. Properly insulating your house. Attic insulation is a big thing. Energy efficient windows. They tend to be more expensive but they can also make a lot of sense in terms of reducing your energy use. Trying to use public transportation. Minimizing your travel. Going to more energy efficient vehicles like hybrids. Those are the most common that directly involve energy use.

NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility is one of the newest buildings, where work is underway to ensure reliable renewable energy is fed onto the national grid. - DENNIS SCHROEDER
  • Dennis Schroeder
  • NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility is one of the newest buildings, where work is underway to ensure reliable renewable energy is fed onto the national grid.

You mentioned cost coming down, and we’ve also seen that with solar panels. Should we expect other savings trends with other renewables soon?

The drop in photovoltaic modules has been dramatic. What we’re seeing now is that the modules have come down so far in cost that people are now focusing attention on the soft costs. So when people have compared the cost of an installed photovoltaic array on a rooftop in the U.S. to what happens in Germany. The German systems are quite a bit less expensive despite the fact that the module prices are the same. We’re looking at ways to lower installation costs, lower permitting costs, that sort of thing. I think as we get more and more PV penetration onto the grid we’ll see those costs come down.

Why is it cheaper in Germany?
Originally there were certainly financial incentives that were offered. Germany has a solar resource that’s about comparable to what we have in Alaska. So they have a much weaker solar resource than most of the Continental U.S. So it’s pretty dramatic what they’ve done. Because those financial incentives allowed them to get a lot of PV deployed, sales and marketing costs came down. Installation costs came down. These are called learning curves when we get a new technology out into the market, for every doubling there is of deployment, some learning curve models show perhaps a 10 percent reduction. And so people learn how to do things much more efficiently and we’re seeing that in the U.S. now.
In addition to PV, wind power has come down greatly in price. And we now have over 60,000 megawatts of wind power installed in the U.S. So that’s also been a real success story and at my center, we’re working on concentrating solar power. You may have seen this technology like parabolic troughs, or power towers. In both those cases we’re doing something similar to what utilities do with a coal plant. We’re basically using solar energy, concentrating it to get a very high temperature, boiling water, producing steam and running a steam turbine. And the advantage of those systems is that they lend themselves to thermal storage, which is a lot less expensive than battery storage that you might have on a PV system. And that storage is important because as we get to more and more renewable energy penetration on the grid, it’s hard to provide the electricity needed in the early evening hours and sometimes early morning hours as well depending on the location. So concentration solar power with thermal storage can fill in those gaps. The challenge there is getting the cost down. It’s still quite expensive and the efforts have really been aimed at various means of lowering the cost. The department of energy has a big program called Sun Shot that’s aimed at lowering the cost of all the solar electricity technologies. Both PV and concentrating solar power. NREL is very involved in that effort.

Did you hear about the Solar Roast guys in Pueblo, who formerly roasted their beans on a solar concentrator? And what about the complaints of bird deaths from those flying through that concentrated heat? Does that pose a challenge of backlash for future projects, related to environmental impact?
There’s two questions there. I have seen articles about these fellows in Pueblo. I think it’s great that they’ve shown that kind of initiative. It points to the fact that solar energy besides reducing electricity, can be used for all sorts of processes that require thermal energy, that require heat. Things like aquaculture, greenhouses and that sort of thing. In the 1980s, we were looking a lot into the area of solar industrial processed heat. The focus in more recent years has been on electricity but I think there’s perhaps increasing interest now in also looking at ways that solar energy can provide heat to processes. And the advantage of that is those temperatures tend to be lower, and so the collectors can be less expensive. We can also have systems that are called CHP or combined-heated power, so basically you’re producing electricity but using the waste heat, the heat rejected by the power cycle, to heat some sort of process. And that’s a better way to use all the energy that comes out of collectors.
Regarding the issue with the bird kill, it is something that the industry takes very seriously. I will say that if you look in the early days of wind turbines, they sited wind turbines where the wind was at its most reliable, good steady velocities. And they found that they were killing a number of birds and realized bird migration routes and habitat needed to be part of the environmental study that went into siting a wind farm. And so they did that and as a result bird kill has gone way down from wind turbines. And if you look at any of these renewable technologies, a huge amount more of birds are killed by flying into windows and buildings and also due to domestic cats.
That doesn’t mean the industry isn’t taking it seriously. In fact the Audubon Society, which is of course really focused on birds, they now endorse wind power because they realize that going to renewable energy is addressing climate change and all the studies show that mortality of many many species, not just birds, will be going up dramatically as a result of climate change. Shifting to renewables is actually going to be a good thing for bird life. In terms of the power towers, there are two types of bird kill that typically occur. They can be injured by flying into the concentrated solar flux near the tower. And also what can happen is flocks of birds when they see the mirrors or heliostats on the land, they can mistake that for a lake and actually try to land and get injured that way.
Again siting, doing studies before the plants are sited is critically important for minimizing bird mortality and then they’re also doing various things like looking at noise generators or other means of chasing birds away. I know at the Ivanpah plant in California, they actually have been spotting — if they spot a flock of birds — they’ll actually change the orientation of the heliostats so that the birds are protected until they pass by. The industry is taking it very seriously, and it’s unfortunate that those people who oppose renewable energy have been focusing on this issue, because again, it’s by no means a show-stopper for renewable energy.

Can you talk about water cooling a bit. I don’t know if you’re heard much about the fuss we have here about Martin Drake plant downtown, how lots of people are fighting to get it decommissioned. Can adding gadgets like the Neumann Systems Group’s emission control technology to our coal plants produce a good return on investment while we segue into renewables?
Well power plants are typically water cooled because water is a very efficient cooling medium for power plants. But people are understandably concerned about water use. So any of these power plants can also be cooled by air. Air isn’t as efficient and so there’s a cost penalty associated with air, but that’s not a show-stopper. You might say for example the cost of electricity from an air-cooled plant could be say 5 percent higher than from a water cooled plant. In regards to coal, the issue with coal is that it is a very major producer of carbon dioxide. In terms of other types of pollutants, those can be more readily captured. Capturing the CO2 tends to be fairly expensive. It can be sequestered geologically so there’s carbon capture and storage. The Department of Energy has a program in that. That’s something that can help address climate change. But it’s pretty clear that when you have a problem like climate change and it’s caused by emitting carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, the most fundamental way to address that is to switch to energy technologies that don’t release carbon dioxide.

The Keystone Pipeline is back in the news big. Do you have any thoughts on that?
It’s a political issue. But it’s pretty clear that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the oil that comes out of the tar sands are significantly higher than for conventional sources of oil. And ultimately we need to be reducing our fossil fuel consumption and/or sequestering the CO2 from those sources. The good news though is that solar and wind have come down so much in cost that in fact it makes economic sense to switch to carbon-free energy sources.

So ultimately you think it’ll be a financial incentive that gets people and governments to make the move rather than just doing the right thing?
I think we’re already seeing that. The nice thing about renewable energy is you’re hedging against future prices. Because basically when you put photovoltaics either in a field or on a rooftop, your investment is made up front. And from that point on the solar energy is free, and so you don’t have to worry about the price spikes that you typically see in fossil fuels. Natural gas varies greatly in price. You’ve seen oil can vary greatly in price. So the nice thing about renewable energy is you know what the cost of your fuel is going to be 10 and 20 years from now. In the business world, minimizing risk and uncertainty is worth a lot.

Do you know the return-on-investment time of most renewables today? It used to be we heard numbers like 30 years for the ROI on PV arrays.
That number has been drastically cut down. Of course it really depends on your location and what your solar resource is. But more importantly, nowadays there are financial mechanisms for allowing the consumer to have an immediate payback. If you look for example at what Solar City is doing, essentially they’re taking on the burden of the initial capital cost and so see an immediate reduction in the cost of your electricity but you’re paying out in this leasing arrangement to the owner of the PV array. Essentially it’s an instantaneous payback.

So the solar garden model might be better for many people?
Yeah, a solar garden is generally thought of as being shared by many people, but Solar City is putting many systems on just individual homeowner rooftops now. Using that economic model. I’m not a PV expert, but I’d suspect in terms of the rooftop systems going in, I’d guess the majority now are using that type of financing.

In 2012 I spoke with Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes, who’s I believe headed NREL when it was called the Solar Energy Research Institute ...
Denis Hayes was the second director of the Solar Energy Research Institute and he was director I guess for a couple of years until September of 1981.

When I talked to him we discussed his Bullitt Foundation’s project, what they were calling at the time the world’s greenest building. Have you tracked that?
Yes, I’m no expert on that building, Denis certainly is, but I think it’s a tremendous accomplishment because they live in Seattle, which doesn’t have the best solar resource. If you look at that building, the roof was expanded with large overhangs in order to allow a larger PV array on the roof. Of course they made that building so it’s extremely energy efficient. To achieve a net zero energy in Seattle, that’s certainly an accomplishment.
The building I’m talking to you from now is our research support facility, and it’s the largest net zero commercial office building in the world. Meaning there’s enough renewable energy produced on site on an annual basis to make up for the energy used by the building. It utilizes photovoltaics not only on this building but also on our parking garage and on our visitor parking lot canopy. It’s a multistory building, and it’s three wings, averaging four floors. It’s on the south side of South Table Mountain.

Can you virtual tour us around it a little more?
We have lots of daylighting as a major feature, so the building axis is oriented east-west, and so it has a lot of south-facing glass. A lot of daylight comes into the building and in the winter time that provides passive solar heating. All year round it produces daylighting which minimizes the lighting load. We have have what are called light louvers in the windows that reflect the sunlight onto white ceilings. So the building is oriented, the wings are such that they’re not very deep in the north-south direction, so the combination of the light louvers and the white ceilings allow us to throw that daylighting and pretty well cover the depth of each wing.
The building is very heavily insulated. It has thermal mass, so that the insulation is on the outside. So for example in the summer time, the building can be pre-cooled overnight, which carries it well into the next day. We have technologies that I worked on called the solar wall, or transpired solar collectors. These are black perforated metal that go on the south wall of portions of this building so that in winter, building-insulation-air is brought through the holes in those walls and is pre-heated by solar energy as it enters the building. So that reduces our ventilation air heating load. We also have hot water in this building that is provided by a wood-chip burning plant that’s on site. We have a very energy efficient heating system. There are ceiling panels with water running through the ceiling panels, so that hot water provides radiant heating.
We’ve really minimized the amount of electricity used by the work stations. Rather than having lots of printers, each wing has a central printer and people send their copies with codes that provide privacy. There’s task lighting. We don’t have desktop computers, we all use laptop computers which are more energy efficient. We have power strips that will shut off the power when it’s not needed. There’s just a whole range of things that make this building energy efficient. We also have some sun tubes for direct lighting in some rooms and hallways.

When was it built and how much did it cost?
It was built, I think the first two wings were completed in 2010, and then a third wing was added. The cost per square foot wound up being less than the average cost per square foot for a new energy efficient commercial building. And the reason was that we used basically performance contracting, where the energy goals were written into the contract up front and it was a design-build contract. So the architect, the construction company were all together at the beginning and agreed in the contract on the energy goals and made sure that those goals were met. So by putting that, by developing a performance contract for the building, we ensured that all the energy goals were met at a reasonable cost. The average construction cost for a whole range of recent buildings was $334 per square foot. And this building cost $259 per square foot.

Since it works and you have something to show, has the government stepped up to do more of these buildings around the country, now that we have the model?
Yes. Using what we learned here, using the same sort of performance contracting, we’re seeing more of these buildings built. There’s one here in the Federal Center. I know some of our staff are working with some buildings in Washington.

Should our regional building departments mandate these types of buildings moving forward by making it code?
The Obama administration has required this of federal buildings, so we are already doing that on the federal building level. In terms of what’s going on through the country, there’s an organization called Architecture 2030 that’s really working with the American Institute of Architects and promulgating these improved standards around the country. The other thing we’re doing is working very closely with utilities like Xcel, National Grid, in order to improve energy efficiency not only on new buildings but on existing buildings where we’re going back and doing retrofits also.

You chaired the 2012 World Renewable Energy Forum. Anything major come out of that?
That conference was certainly great for bringing people from around the world together and networking and understanding what’s happening around the world. In terms of a specific outcome, I’d look back to the national solar conference that I chaired in 2006. That conference was specifically devoted to how we can address climate change with renewable energy. Out of that came a 200-page report called Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. That looked at energy efficiency in all the renewable technologies and did this bottom-up estimate of how all these technologies could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by the year 2030. And that study, which I’ll talk about a little bit in my presentation, showed that we could well be on the path to a 60 to 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050. I’d say now we need to do even better than that.
There’s three topics of my presentation: I’m going to talk about the latest science on climate change. I’m going to talk about why it’s so serious, and then I’ll also talk about the things we can do about it, because I really think that the average American unfortunately doesn’t understand how serious this problem is. And so I really try in my presentations to show that in fact the science behind this is very solid. Unfortunately, we’re late in addressing this for a variety of reasons, but because we’re late, we can’t totally solve the problem in the near term. We’re going to have to adapt. But at the same time, if we don’t really get serious about addressing it, the amount of adaptation is going to be much worse. And the economic losses are going to be much worse. So even though there’s some expense associated with making this transition, and that expense is dropping rapidly, if we don’t make that transition it’s going to be much more costly to deal with the environmental damage.

I suppose it doesn’t help that we still have elected officials who are avid climate-change deniers.
Well it is encouraging to see what measures the White House has been taking. You’re right, it’s discouraging that we’re not seeing the attention we’d like to see from Congress, but the good news is we are seeing a lot of work on the state and local level. California for example has been very aggressive about this. Many communities are being aggressive. People are starting to understand this and address it.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention?
I would encourage people to listen to what the science community says. We have some of the world’s best scientists in this country. They’re really doing their best to communicate that climate change is something that we need to address. And the good news is that we have the means to address it. We just have to be willing to make this transition to carbon-free energy technologies. 

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