Researchers across the university are invested in developing scalable, renewable energy solutions for the 'wicked problem' of fossil fuel consumption
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on energy research at ASU. The second story examines at the challenges facing solar power; the finale looks at policy and the real-world economic effects on people.
People don’t like the dark.
The first order of business in the Bible — the very first three verses — is getting rid of the dark by bringing in the light. Human ancestors made fires in South Africa one and a half million years ago. “My Sun” was the proper way to address Mesopotamian royalty. “Love is not consolation,” Nietzsche said. “It is light.”
When the sun sets, we dispel the dark with energy drawn from dead animals; “burning dinosaur bones,” Johnny Cash put it.
That’s changing. There is a Great Transition underway, a colossal shift from fossil fuels to wind, plants, natural processes and our sun. It’s born from technological innovation and necessity. If humanity continues to dispel the dark entirely with carbon fuels, we will eventually wipe ourselves out.
Renewable energy sources are no longer the sole province of Northern California hippies and hard-core Alaskan survivalists.
Are we skipping blithely toward a clean-air future, with solar panels on every roof and an electric car in every garage? Not at all. Experts agree your energy future will involve a mix of sources.
It will also involve solving a massive problem that is composed of thousands of problems itself.
“It’s all kinds of complicated,” said Arizona State University energy policy wonk Elisabeth Graffy.
“Energy is related to everything. There are energy systems themselves, which tends often to be thought of as an engineering issue. … It’s a classic wicked problemA wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is extremely difficult or impossible to solve., right? It touches all kinds of other issues, each of which is its own big issue. Then you have to figure out how they relate.
ASU is tackling energy research with more than a hundred experts working on every aspect imaginable (and some quite surprising): from bizarre alternative fuels to humanities, from solar cells to society, from power transmission to policy.
“It’s almost too much,” said Betsy Cantwell, CEO of Arizona State University Research Enterprise, the university’s applied research arm. Energy research is so huge at ASU that many of the people working in it don’t know the others. There’s no central hub for it. There isn’t a center or an institute, no umbrella over it all.
Instead, there is LightWorks, a network of like-minded people working together on a broad spectrum of related issues. It is directed by Gary Dirks, a blunt former tai-pan who grew British Petroleum China from an operation with fewer than 30 employees and no revenue to more than 1,300 employees and revenues of about $4 billion. Dirks earned a doctorate in chemistry from ASU in 1980. He is highly decorated by foreign governments, including an honorary Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George from the United Kingdom.
Dirks is something of a maestro of energy research, assembling and attracting a unique band of brothers. In addition to the expected engineers, Dirks has brought English professors, historians and sociologists into the mix.
This is no ordinary nail, and it will require a very special hammer. Twenty years from now the energy system is going to be vastly different than it is today.
“The question is: In what way?” Dirks said. “In other words, there’s going to be multiple pathways into the future, and the question then becomes, ‘How do we influence which one we get?’ That then draws in a much broader range of people thinking about the energy system and the energy transition as a complex system. There we have people from English, we have many people from the social sciences, we’ve got engineers, and they’re all kind of engaged in asking really some very good questions about the future, the energy system, and how do you build an energy system that serves us instead of us being bolted into an energy system that seems to have a life of its own.”
That unusual take on the topic is luring top experts to ASU.
Graffy has spent most of her career in government, most of it at the federal level. She studies public policy development. Issues about energy, layered with climate change, were starting to take on a life of their own. She saw it all changing quickly, and new approaches weren’t being developed.
“I looked around at which universities were likely to be taking up these issues in the way I wanted to work on them,” Graffy said. “There weren’t many options. This really was cutting-edge. Terms we use now like ‘energy transition’ and ‘energy and society,’ which are pretty common at ASU, didn’t exist. Six years ago, no one had words for this stuff.
“At ASU I think we are the only university that has all of those pieces that we can bring into the same conversation,” she said. “Some of the ideas have been floating around for a while, but talking about them in a really serious way is still relatively new.”
Of all the things we want an energy system to do, how do we make choices and strike a balance?
“That’s the energy story,” Dirks said. “All the rest of it is just detail. We are working on the whole thing.”
Graffy has now been at ASU for six years.
“We are poised to do some groundbreaking work in that space,” she said.
Money, power, influence and reality
Energy systems are, and have been, the largest aggregators of power and wealth in the world. Twelve of the top 20 global Fortune 500 companies are energy companies.
Legacy energy is huge, in every way. It’s never going to say, “Oh, renewables have beaten us, and we’re just going to shut down the refineries, dock the ships, slink away and do something else.”
But renewable energy sources are steadily creeping up. They provided 18.4 percent of domestic electrical generation for the first two months of 2018. Solar grew 47.5 percent over January 2017, wind by 18.1 percent, biomass by 2.4 percent, and geothermal by 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Worldwide, it’s not a huge chunk. About 1 to 2 percent of global electricity and energy consumption comes from solar energy at the moment.
The New York Times reports that onshore wind-farm technician is the fastest-growing job in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The thing that I want to keep getting across is that this is a global scale, and it’s bigger than any government,” Dirks said. “It’s bigger than any collection of governments; it’s just going to run over local politics. It’s just a question of how and when. ... The energy system is changing, and there is absolutely nothing anybody can do to stop that. ... My point is, the president of the United States, Congress, the Chinese government, it doesn’t matter who they are, you’re not going to stop this going on because it’s just very fundamental.”
Clark Miller directs the Center for Energy and Society in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. He studies the societal implications of large-scale energy transitions.
“If you start to think about decentralizing that system, you’re fundamentally changing how we distribute wealth in society,” Miller said.
Global security will also undergo a seismic shift. It has revolved around oil since before World War I.
“If we switch to a different kind of energy system, our security problems are different,” Miller said. “I doubt they go away, but they no longer entail defending Saudi Arabia, for example.”
Legacy energy is fighting like a wounded animal, because it’s beginning to die by a thousand cuts.
“There are groups here in Arizona that some of them are kind of being recalcitrant,” Dirks said. “OK, good luck, that will last for five years, 10 years if you’re lucky. And this train is going to run over you, too, so you might want to figure out how to minimize the damage when the train comes through.”
Legacy companies don’t have one voice or perspective on what’s happening, but it’s clear there’s a lot of debate within them.
“If I’m APS, SRP, TEP (Tucson Electric Power), in the next 24 to 36 months, if I’m a serious thinker inside one of those organizations about the long-term — even the medium-term — future of the business, I have got to be figuring out how I’m going to get ahead of my customers on renewable energy,” Miller said.
The real driver of recent policy moves by APS and SRP wasn’t households. It was big-box retailers. They were buying solar energy like mad. Power companies acted very quickly to change the financial incentives for those folks. It’s a big part of their business, and they make a lot of money from them.
“If they try to push too hard to stop people from doing this, they’re going to start seeing companies developing solutions to sell to individual customers enough batteries and solar panels to basically take a house entirely off the utility grid,” Miller said. “There’s enough lingering irritation at utility companies generally that I think there’s a lot of people who would look at that and begin to ask, ‘Is this something I want to do?’”
When President Donald Trump announced last year that the United States would exit the Paris climate deal, many corporations said they would cut emissions on their own. That is speeding up. Last year in the United States, 19 large corporations announced deals with energy providers to build 2.78 gigawatts’ worth of wind and solar generating capacity, equal to one-sixth of all of the renewable capacity added nationwide in 2017, reported the New York Times.
Utilities have their backs to the wall. How much time do they have to adapt or be run over?
“It’s not a big problem five years from now, but given trends in the price of renewable energy and the prices of batteries, I don’t see how it’s not a serious problem for them 15 years from now, which means they have to get ahead of it,” Miller said. “They have to figure out how to continue for them to be the energy provider of the future.”
How the Great Transition stacks up historically
How long did switches between energy sources take to happen? What can the past tell us about the present?
Chris Jones, an associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at ASU, is an energy historian who studies transitions, among other related topics.
“Several decades is the short answer,” Jones said. “Part of the question becomes when and where do you count it as being an energy transition? In the past, some of them have occurred quite quickly in localized areas, and then taken very long to reach other places.”
The first real use of coal was in 1820, Jones said. By 1885 coal was 50 percent of the energy supply. That’s 65 years.
Oil was first discovered in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 1859. In its first four decades, it was used for illumination, replacing whale oil. The internal combustion engine on a car came along in 1885. The Model T Ford followed in 1913.
“You’re looking at 55 years before a major transport sector starts to take off for oil to be used in much larger quantities,” Jones said.
With coal and oil, places that were close to pipelines and waterways adopted the new fuels swiftly. Rural or distant areas had to wait quite a bit longer. It took 50 years after the first homes had electricity before half the homes in the U.S. had electricity. (Fun fact: The world’s oldest lightbulb — the Centennial Light, in a fire station in Livermore, California — has been burning for 117 years. Guinness has verified it.)
The history of renewables isn’t all that different if you think about patterns of adoption, Jones said.
“One of the big things my historical research showed was that the adoptions of coal, oil and electricity were absolutely longer, murkier and less obvious than we think in retrospect,” he said. “Right now there’s this assumption that of course coal, oil and electricity were great and people rushed out to adopt them … then they compare that to renewables and they say, ‘Why is this happening so slowly? They must be inferior.’
“That’s a very bogus argument because if you look at them in their time, coal, oil and electricity all seemed some combination of unfamiliar, inconvenient and expensive.”
Almost all historical energy transitions have been what some historians call energy accretions. They are additions. We didn’t transition much away from anything; we just added more layers. However, in this epoch, it’s a different dynamic. People aren’t thinking of completely shutting off electricity in their homes when they install solar panels. They’re doing it to shave some money off their power bill. But this transition is unique because of the need to get rid of an energy source.
Although putting solar on your house may reduce your bill and make you feel warm and gooey inside, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. Residential energy use in 2017 accounted for only 6.2 percent of overall energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Remember, the adoption of oil took around 55 years. It required mass-produced automobiles to hoist oil to where it is today.
“Without electric cars, solar panels do nothing to affect the oil market,” Jones said. “It would take the electric car to have renewable energy significantly affect oil.”
The electric car is here, but not everywhere. Yet.
Right now, Teslas are the top status symbol in Los Angeles. But Elon Musk is working on the cheaper Model 3. Every other auto manufacturer has some type of electric or partly electric vehicle in the works. If you’re looking for signs of the democratization of electric cars, there are Tesla charging stations behind the Carl’s Jr. in Quartzsite, Arizona.
“Part of when fuels compete and push something off is whether there are direct replacements for the same service that’s provided,” Jones said. “Right now, oil is different than coal and natural gas in that so much of it is the transport sector.”
Energy transitions are about volume at scale. You read the energy news and there are always new breakthroughs in this or that. They’re interesting, but nothing’s relevant until you can do it in the billions of dollars at a cost people can afford.
It’s not easy being green (but it’s possible)
The late Milton Sommerfeld, founder and co-director of ASU’s algae labs (the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation), leaned back in his chair two years ago, having just spun his vision of the future to life.
It was a future where you filled your gas tank with algal fuel, fed algae to livestock, fertilized crops, lawns and flowerbeds with algae, purified wastewater with it, and ate it. Outside every small town is an algae pond, filling that town’s needs.
“OK,” a visitor said. “How come I’m not running my car on algae right now?”
“What’d you pay for gas this week?”
“That’s why,” said the Wizard of Ooze.
Sommerfeld grew up on a farm in Texas. His father made him clean the algae out of the cattle trough. Every week, he cleaned it out. Every week, it came back.
“I kept wondering why it grew so fast,” he said in a 2016 interview. “That was how I first related to the algae.”
One of the nation’s top experts on algae, Sommerfeld spent almost 50 years cracking dozens of uses for the plant. There are about 75,000 types of algae, ranging from microscopic specimens to kelp a hundred feet long and as big around as a baseball bat. It can look like lime Kool-Aid, black or brown crude oil, or hearty burgundy.
On a 4-acre site directly across the street from the algae lab on ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, Sommerfeld’s successors are working on bringing algae cultivation to a production scale. In the baking sun sit racks of panels with algae bubbling in them and long test beds lined with white plastic where mill paddles churn scarab-green and wine-dark water. Six years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy invested $15 million to find out how to grow algae outdoors in a production setting.
There are places with more faculty working on algae, but from a U.S. academic standpoint, there is no facility bigger or with more capability.
“With the combination of our laboratory and outdoor facilities, no one can match us,” said John McGowen, director of operations and program management. “Generally speaking, we are the largest academically based test bed in the world.”
Researchers prospect interesting algae in the environment. (Swimming pools, mud puddles — it grows everywhere.) They look at what the algae is doing and how it positively or negatively affects the environment, searching for interesting applications in ecosystems such as wastewater purification. While the facility’s work ranges broadly over food, dyes, pharmaceuticals and high-value compounds, the bulk of the lab has been funded from an energy standpoint: 75 to 80 percent of the funding comes from the Department of Energy.
To get to the point, algae as a fuel is not happening, at least not from a large-scale standpoint.
The issue is not “Can you make oil out of algae?” It’s “Can you make hundreds of millions of barrels at not more than twice the cost of conventional oil?”
“It’s technologically feasible, but the scales are mind-boggling when you think about it,” McGowen said. “As Gary Dirks likes to say, the energy system in the U.S. is 100 years old and it’s a very defensive beast. The infrastructure there is solid, and most of the stuff you do isn’t going to disrupt that because you’re not even on a similar scale.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t commercial potential for algae and algae technology.
“It’s more on an agriculture side from a commercial standpoint,” McGowen said. “That’s actually a good thing because the quality of the oil isn’t that great. There’s a whole range of applications, many of which have been technologically proven. Now it’s just a question of the economics and finding the right scales.”
Fuel for a far distant future, part 1
Fossil fuels are finite. The world uses 11 billion tons of oil annually. Known oil deposits are projected to last until 2052, according to the CIA World Factbook. If the world steps up gas production and coal mining to fill the oil gap, known sources of those fuels are projected to run out in 2088. New reserves will be found, but those being discovered are far smaller than past deposits.
There are other potential fuels that, like algae, are viable but not scalable or economically sensible — for now.
Kevin Redding is a biochemist who leads the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis at ASU. In his lab they work on biological, light-driven energy extraction. Researchers are trying to answer two questions: How does the fundamental science work, and how can it be applied?
“I’m trying to redirect the natural photosynthesis pathway to be useful to us,” Redding said.
Think of photosynthesis as an assembly line. You start at one end, oxidize water, and it releases oxygen. Electrons come down through the pathway and at the very end take carbon dioxide out of the air, fixing it into organic molecules like sugar and protein. Redding has redirected those electrons to make hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel.
Yes, there are buses that run on hydrogen, but that hydrogen was made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. With Redding’s biofuel, you’d be running cars on hydrogen that came from water.
“That’s the whole idea behind making biofuels from CO2 in the air, which is probably a better idea, because our whole infrastructure is set to deal with liquid fuels,” Redding said. “If we’re dealing with hydrocarbons right now, why not stick with that? You take CO2 from the air, you make a fuel you can put in your tank, you burn it, you make CO2 again, but since that carbon came from CO2 in the air anyway, there’s no net production.”
Hydrogen is used in making gasoline and diesel fuel, food products, chemicals, semiconductors, metals and more. It’s more valuable as a commodity. Before you’d ever use it as a fuel you’d have to flood the commodity market.
“Fuels are very high volume, low margin,” Redding said. “It’s the lowest-value thing you can make. Right now hydrogen is much more valuable as a commodity than a fuel. ... Economically it doesn’t make sense.”
The best estimate he has heard is that biofuels could get to be only 40 or 50 percent more expensive than petroleum.
“Who’s going to pay $2 more for a gallon, even if you had the choice?” he said. “We could do it. We could do it right now. But as long as there’s an alternative, no one is going to do it.”
Redding is working on a proof of concept, but small-scale experiments in a lab are a different ballgame than a facility where the scale has increased exponentially. Cooking breakfast for yourself is easy. Cooking breakfast for an army is a whole different deal.
“Until we try things at that level, I don’t know,” Redding said.
Fuel for a far distant future, part 2
Ellen Stechel may be one of the few scientists who loves CO2. A chemist in the School of Molecular Sciences, Stechel is also deputy director of LightWorks. She studies using CO2 to make products by chemical means (not biology or photosynthesis).
“Carbon is very versatile,” she said. You can make anything with it that you can make from petroleum today, like plastic bowls. It forms more compounds than any other element in the periodic table (besides hydrogen). Carbon composites can subsitute for steel or cement (and it will be much lighter and stronger).
She worked with a team at Sandia National Laboratories on a “Sunshine to Petrol” project. (She also managed the Fuels and Energy Transitions Department at Sandia.)
“Once we split CO2 or split water — or both of them — then we have a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which is called syngas,” Stechel said. “We can use that as our building blocks for making pretty much any kind of petroleum alternative you would like. We’re focused on diesel and aviation fuel, but it could be other things.”
But like any other alternative fuel, the cost makes it hard to implement.
Stechel wants to take the bad stuff out of the air and turn it into buildings and bridges.
“I’d personally like to turn it into value before seeing it as burying waste,” she said. “The challenge is getting over the cost humps.”
Energy's Great Transition series
Top photo: Replacing the enormous infrastructure of current energy sources is one of the main hurdles for the Great Transition to renewable energy. Above, the drilling ship Polar Pioneer arrives in Seattle. Photo by Ron Wurzer/Courtesy of Shell