I’m really excited about today’s show. I’ll be talking to Dave Renné, president of the International Solar Energy Society. Dave worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, from 1991 to 2012. He developed their program for renewable energy resource assessment and analysis, and GIS integration. He has also consulted on renewable energy for organizations all over the world including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank
But first I have some news I’d like to share with you.
The Positive Polarity Report
In the previous episode I spoke with Lane Boldman, Executive Director of the Kentucky Conservation Committee. We talked about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. At the time of the interview we were discussing the draft version of the plan. The final version had not yet been released by the EPA. Lane let me know that the final plan is much more stringent for Kentucky. She has posted details on the final plan at kyconservation.org. There is also a fantastic episode of The Energy Gang podcast that goes into great detail on the plan.
Featured Guest – Dave Renné
Dave Renné saw a lot of exciting growth during his career at NREL. I would say he’s even busier now. He’s in his second term as president of the International Solar Energy Society. He serves on a International Energy Agency Solar Heating and Cooling Programme. He’s an Associate Editor of the Solar Energy Journal. And he has his own renewable energy consulting firm. His client list includes, the World Bank, Clean Power Research, the International Renewable Energy Agency, Battelle Memorial Institute, the Brazilian Center for Energy and Climate Change and the Asian Development Bank.
DR: The International Solar Energy Society, which was formed back in 1954, promotes the research and deployment and end use of solar energy technologies and also promotes the communication of the value of those technologies to the broader population. So, it’s focused on promoting research and the development of these technologies as well as communicating how these technologies can be used to the broader community.
DB: Okay, how do you measure success for those efforts?
DR: Well, that’s a good question. We like to say that indirectly we’ve had a strong influence on the commercial growth of PV and other solar technologies and solar heating and cooling technologies as well as building architecture methodologies and strategies. And I think one measure of success is just to look at the growth of the solar energy industry overall over the past 50 years and it’s been, especially in the past 20 years very remarkable growth. The technology costs have finally come to the point where they have become commercially available. It’s not necessarily the cheapest option in all cases but certainly they’re commercially accessible to much of the population and cost effective applications can be derived from them.
DB: You used to work at the National Renewable Energy Lab, correct? So, you were probably involved in a lot of research there that led to some of the discoveries that brought the cost down. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DR: Well my actual work at NREL was managing the solar resource assessment program. So we were developing methodologies and providing tools to create and distribute solar resource information. Now that information of course is very important to the industry and to the use of solar energy because that’s your fundamental fuel source for the technology. And we were collocated with the photovoltaic research program at NREL. So obviously we had a lot of communication with researchers doing the actual solar cell research. And my work was more about solar resource assessment.
DB: That must have been pretty rewarding.
DR: Yes it was, it was rewarding to see how the availability of solar resource information helped stimulate the growth of the industry. First of all, when a government entity, and we did a lot of international work here. So this is especially true with some countries that we worked in that the government didn’t really appreciate how much energy in total was available through solar or for wind for that matter. And once they got our maps or our data sets they realized that was something that was really worth pursuing. And then of course they would consumer information about the technologies as well and they would put it all together and realize they should be developing policies favorable to the development of renewable energy. And so we find that not only in the U.S. and in local communities but in countries around the world that the availability of good reliable resource information helped stimulate policies that can be used to promote the development of renewable energy.
DB: Did you find that you had to deliver that message over and over and over again because, or was it always welcomed?
DR: It wasn’t always well understood. One of the major hurdles we always ran into, especially internationally there’s a perception that’s always out there that renewable energy technologies are only for the very rich. It’s a very expensive technology, it costs a lot of money up front to buy the technology and there’s not a lot of convincing evidence to many people that haven’t been close to the industry that the long term cost savings more than offset the initial cost. But of course now the initial costs have come way down. So, that’s one of the major barriers that’s rapidly disappearing from the development of renewable energy.
DB: What are some of the technological breakthroughs that have brought those costs down?
DR: Well certainly on the photovoltaic side, not only the improvement of cell efficiency which has probably in many cases doubled over past 20 or 30 years, and NREL’s done some very good work in tracking the growth of the cell efficiency. But also the cost of the balance of systems overall and especially components like mounting systems as well as inverters and storage capacity, all of those costs. Costs are coming down and the reliability of the systems that make up a PV system, for example, is improving so the longevity of the technology is improving. And of course that’s going to lower the cost of energy.
DB: Sure. In a lot of cases I think I’ve seen, where they’ve show that in certain parts of the country, or in comparison to peak production maybe, they’ve shown that solar is at grid parity in a lot of cases. What do you think is the next breakthrough that we need to drive it down lower so it’s at grid parity everywhere?
DR: Well, I think it’s going to be a combination of things. There’s still room for a lot of R&D to continue to improve cell design and system design and to bring those costs down. There’s a lot of work that’s needed to be done to help utilities understand how to integrate high penetrations of solar into their systems. Once they have confidence that that can happen that opens up a lot of avenues for much greater production and utilization. I think we need to continue to make sure there are policies out there that reduce the financial risk of investing in solar and other renewable technologies. As I said in my talk yesterday, I think, as somebody asked the question about, what are some of the best policies and I think something like a carbon price once that’s established will certainly make funds available and a lot of financing available for further growth of renewable energy. And as long as you continue to have growth you’re going to have price drops. That’s just part of the learning curve.
DB: Well, in Kentucky where I am, I’m sure there are a lot of people still who think we don’t have enough sunshine and you worked on defining the solar resource for a long time. That’s just not true there. Are there any states in the United States that don’t have enough sunshine for solar?
DR: No, I don’t think so. In fact we’ve done studies at NREL comparing what we think are the cloudiest states with the solar resource in Germany. And even our cloudiest states have a better resource than the majority of the country of Germany, and you look at the success stories in Germany, largely due to the feed-in tariff that was created there about 20 years ago. But overall the cost of the balance of systems in Germany seems to be lower than in the United States. I’m not exactly sure what all the reasons are for that. Could be associated with labor or tariffs, I’m not sure what, but the reality is the solar resource is not much of a limiting factor anywhere in the world for applications.
DB: That’s good. I suppose a related myth is that the hotter a place is the better it is for solar and that’s not always exactly true, right?
DR: That’s right I mean obviously you associate higher temperature regions with higher solar regions but some of the hottest places in the world, they have a good solar resource, don’t get me wrong, but they also have other attributes about the solar resource like a lot of haze, which limits the technology that can be deployed there. In other words, you would think for example that in parts of the middle east the solar resource available for concentrating solar technologies is always going to be great but that’s not always the case. You get a lot of haze and dust storms and events that can reduce the resource quite substantially even though you have generally very warm temperatures.
DB: And dust results in more maintenance right?
DR: It results in maintenance. It also blocks the sun directly and for concentrating solar systems we need direct sunlight for them to work properly, so when you have a lot of dust, even though you still have enough light to run PV you don’t have the direct solar light to run a concentrating system.
DB: That’s interesting that you mention concentrating solar. I always wonder what’s the future of that technology? Do you think that’s going to be a big part of the puzzle?
DR: It’s a good question. It’s hard to say right now, the cost of PV is dropping so much that even some projects that were originally going to be concentrating solar projects are now shifting back over to PV. There are certain distinct advantages of concentrating solar technology. Currently they’re designed to provide firm capacity of six to eight hours after the sun goes down because of the storage capacity that’s built into the systems and I think that’s very important because that provides solar capacity that can be used during the evening hours when the loads quite high. So I think that’s an advantage that CSP currently has for most of its applications. But the costs overall are still quite a bit higher, the costs per watt as you would say, are quite a bit higher than PV in most cases. Of course they need the high solar, direct solar radiation to work effectively so that limits the locations around the world where they can be deployed cost effectively. So those are two factors working against it. Now in the Mideast I think there’s a lot of promise for concentrating solar power. I think there’s still potential for a lot of CSP applications. We have to also be aware of the impacts that dust and haze in the air can have on the resource available.
DB: Since solar is economically viable and profitable now, the transition to more and more solar seems to be inevitable but we don’t really have time to just allow it to take its inevitable course. Climate scientists have tried to put a stake in the sand and say we should not increase the temperature of the planet by more than two degrees centigrade. You were talking earlier about the amount of carbon that we can still burn and stay within that two degrees centigrade. Can you describe that?
DR: Well it seems like, as I said in my talk about 2,000 Gigatons of carbon dioxide has been emitted since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And that’s caused the atmosphere, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to grow to about 400 parts per million. About double to what it was in pre-industrial times. And that has resulted in almost one degree centigrade global temperature increase. There’s a lot of complexity associated with learning from the models but we expect that temperature will continue to grow because there’s a delayed effect in adding carbon to the atmosphere and seeing the results of that in global temperatures. What that means is that the next degree will come with a lot less additional carbon being added to the atmosphere. And at the same time we’re facing a dilemma that our carbon burning infrastructure continues to grow around the world and so therefore our annual carbon dioxide input into the atmosphere continues to increase, so it’s a huge challenge that we’re facing that we can really only tolerate maybe 10 to 20 more years of growth in carbon dioxide emissions if we want to have any chance at all of avoiding what the modelers are showing as two degrees centigrade warming being the threshold that we don’t want to go beyond.
DB: It seems like we’re having trouble building the political will and maybe the public outcry to do something serious about this. I’m sure that’s part of the mission for ISES. What should we be doing as individual that are concerned?
DR: Well as individuals we can all take personal actions. And if that word gets around to a broad enough part of the population, that’s one very important step we should take. Making sure we’re communicating the challenges effectively as individuals what actions we should take. But that may not be enough. It most likely will require some much more aggressive action at the national and even at the international level. And of course there’s a lot of concern and even doubts that we’re going to achieve that. Look at the problems we had trying to get a global climate change agreement put in place and there’s a lot of hope out there that maybe in Paris we’ll have some breakthroughs, but it’s going to take a combination of agreements by nations as well as local action to really make it occur. The aspect that I am encouraged about is how much community action I’m seeing around the world. Where communities are saying, well we don’t want to wait for the national governments to make their minds what to do. We just see this as a problem now and we’re going to start taking action now as a community to see if we can get to ultimately 100% renewable energy and eliminate our carbon contribution to the atmosphere altogether.
DB: That would be exciting.
DB: What percentage are we at right now?
DR: About 20%. If you look at the global status report, I think it’s just slightly under 20% for global energy consumption and slightly over 20% for global electricity production. Much of that 20% is tied up in hydro and biomass resources.
DB: Okay. How much of it is solar?
DR: About 1% is solar and another 3% is other renewables like wind. So the actual variable renewable energy resource that’s being used right now to provide electricity is globally about 3 to 4%.
DB: There probably aren’t that many more sites where we could put massive hydro projects. I’m not a hydroelectric engineer or anything but I’m assuming we’ve done a lot of that already. So what do you think will be the biggest part of the puzzle to get to 100%?
DR: I think it’s going to be the transformation that society will have to take in terms of how it perceives its sources of energy and how it uses its sources of energy. I think the utility of the future is going to look quite different than the utility of today. We’re going to see a lot more distributed resources. We’re going to see more actions taken to reduce the demand for electricity around the world without sacrificing our lifestyle. And so that will most likely lead to a lot of local actions, to a lot of home systems or community systems that are not necessarily off the grid but are the primary source of electricity for the community so they’re more distributed, more locally produced. But the transformation of course that means getting away from the idea of a large central station generator to more distributed generators, smaller perhaps in scale, more distributed and closer to the loads. These are of course variable renewable energy generators, wind and solar. And I think the opportunity for installing wind on buildings and rooftops and vacant lands is significant, there’s a lot of land available for that. I think there’s still a lot of good sites for wind, although many of the good sites that are near transmission lines are already being used so we’re going to have to work on identifying more sites and doing something about the transmission system to get access to those sites.
DB: And things that shut off lighting automatically like the lights just went off in this room. So conservation is part of it too.
DR: Yeah, conservation, but not in a way that’s like we have to sacrifice. It’s conservation that makes sense to maintain our lifestyle without being wasteful. Without using things excessively that we don’t have to do. So that’s a communication issue.
DB: So the American Solar Energy Society is a chapter of the International Solar Energy Society.
DR: It’s a section.
DB: So how many sections are there in the world?
DR: Well if you look at our website we probably have around 40 or 50 that are mentioned on the website. I think of those there’s 20 that are quite active and maybe similar in structure to the American Solar Energy Society. Maybe not necessarily as large. Europe has a number of very active sessions. We have a strong association with Australia. And there’s a couple of sections in Africa that are also very strong. Mexico, a few in South America. We do have section representation all over the world but what we’re also doing is not focusing only on our sections but also focusing on other partners and other like-minded organizations that we can work with together and communicate with together to expand our influence beyond our own sections.
DB: One last question. Tell me what was the event or moment that made this click for you that made you so passionate about renewable energy?
DR: That’s interesting because when I was a kid of course I didn’t know what renewable energy was. I was always interested in weather and atmospheric sciences but then in the 1970s I was working at a national lab, Pacific Northwest National Lab, and the newly formed department of energy, they were called ERDA back then, decided to promote renewable energy research. And there was a program that had been running in the National Science Foundation that was moved over to this new energy research and development administration. And they went to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s weather team to help them better understand the wind resource characteristics around the country. And I got involved in the program right from the very start and that was really the trigger for my passion for renewable energy. I could see the future in that and plus I was able to apply my professional expertise in that area so that was a good combination, good timing for me.
DB: Well thank you so much Dave. I really appreciate it. It was great talking with you.
DR: Okay David. Good talking with you.
You can find out more about Dave at daverennerenewables.net.
Clean Power Planet Chronicles
This is our tenth episode. It’s been a lot more fun and a whole lot more work than I ever could have imagined. But I think we have a pretty good system now and we’re going to do our best to release the show weekly from here on out. We would love to get some feedback or suggestions for stories. Just email me at david at cleanpowerplanet.com and let me know what you think. And if you don’t have any feedback send us your renewable energy story and we’ll share it on the blog. Why are you passionate about renewable energy?