A chat with a Renewable Energy Technologist

Night's Candles Are Burnt Out, Seán Keating, 1889–1977

Night's Candles Are Burnt Out, Seán Keating, 1889–1977

As part of the Work on Climate Expert Office Hours, I had a chance to talk to Dave, a renewable energy technologist at Google.

A few notes on our conversation:

Book recommendations on energy

Current challenges

  • Supplying clean energy for data centers
    • Rapidly growing need for data centers to power large language models
    • Increasing efficiency of these models 100x could prevent devastating CO2 emissions
  • Transmission Bottlenecks
    • Building out more high-voltage transmission lines is a major bottleneck
    • Many transmission projects stalled due to "not in my backyard" opposition
    • New wind/solar farms are pointless without transmission to get electricity onto grid
  • Intermittency and Weather Forecasting
    • Classic problem of wind/solar being intermittent and mismatched to demand
    • Improved weather forecasting is crucial for optimizing renewable dispatch
    • More predictive capability through better weather models is imperative
  • Optimal Power Flow (OPF) Modeling
    • Solving OPF problem is key for grid operators to avoid overloads/blackouts
    • OPF models determine optimal electricity flows during periods of energy scarcity
    • Understanding OPF is valuable for using computing/software for renewable integration
  • Overall grid management challenges
    • Intermittency of renewables coupled with transmission constraints
    • Inability to perfectly predict and match supply/demand
    • Must be overcome for effective integration of high levels of renewables

Role of Nuclear Energy

  • We have to build a lot more nuclear power plants. Nuclear power provides stable baseload power and is one of the safest forms of electrical power generation
  • It produces a tiny amount of nuclear waste, which can be managed despite opposition
  • Once built and paid off, nuclear plants can last 100 years and provide inexpensive, stable power
  • The French have perfected building nuclear plants cost-effectively, achieving economies of scale and low carbon intensity
    • as of Dec 2023, they generate 2/3 of electricity from nuclear.
    • they have one of the lowest CO2 emissions per unit of electricity in the world at 85g of CO2/kWh, compared to global average of 438.

on Fusion

  • Dave spent 5 years working on fusion energy at Google, mostly exploring ideas that didn't pan out
  • Commonwealth Fusion Sciences, an MIT startup, has a promising approach combining high-temperature superconductivity with toroidal Tokamak fusion
  • Their approach is based on well-understood models, making it more predictable and engineerable
  • However, fusion is still at an early stage, similar to solar energy in the 1950s before silicon cells became practical
  • Fusion may be viable for future generations, but serious decarbonization efforts can't rely on it in the near-term

what he wished people knew more about energy

  • energy in food
    • You can put food into a calorimeter and figure out its energy content in joules.
    • For a potato, if you burn it in a calorimeter, you'll find out how many joules of energy it contains.
    • You can then trace back how many joules of fossil energy it took to produce that potato.
    • Divide the fossil energy input by the food energy output, and you get a dimensionless ratio in joules per joule.
    • For a potato, it's something like one quarter of a joule of fossil energy per joule of food energy, so a 4 to 1 ratio.
    • That's not great that fossil energy is still burned to make a potato, but at least it's 4 joules out for every 1 in.
    • If you look at the American diet on average, it's about 8 joules of fossil energy per joule of food energy.
    • So the American diet is about 30 times worse than just eating potatoes in terms of embedded fossil energy.
  • energy in air travel
    • He's happy Google Flights shows you the tons of CO2 emitted for flight routes.
    • People should especially avoid short flights, as a lot of emissions come from the energy expended in the climb to cruising altitude.
    • For short flights, planes may never reach that cruising altitude before descending.
    • Long distance isn't good either, as it burns more fuel over a longer distance.
    • If people were more aware, we'd have electrified high-speed rail networks which are much easier to decarbonize than air travel.
    • Airplanes running on batteries are either too heavy or too short range currently.

imparting words

  • get to know your neighbors and the people around you
  • volunteer for a nonprofit / start your own like Dave
  • Dave started his own nonprofit that he volunteers for
  • find joy and happiness close to home and in their own communities, this can make communities stronger and happier
  • The implication is that being engaged locally and finding fulfillment in one's community can lead to lower climate impacts from factors like reduced consumption, travel, etc.