What to Watch for in the New Year

Electric vehicle uptake, smart grid returns, U.S. energy trends, GHG regulation

3 min read
What to Watch for in the New Year

There are four  big stories we'll be tracking, with an eye on long-term energy conservation and greenhouse gas reduction. In each there is likely to be a critical threshold; a stumble crossing any of them will have wide repercussions in power engineering.

(1) Electric vehicle reception. With Chevy's Volt and Nissan Leaf coming onto the market, with  a number of other electric vehicles soon to follow from other manufacturers, this is the year in which EVs at last have their chance to obtain a secure niche in the market--or flop. If consumers turn their noses up at them--whether it's because they're too expensive, their performance is not what it's cracked up to be, or the charging infrastructure isn't mature enough--we will have to conclude that they'll have little or nothing to contribute for the foreseeable future.

Through the 1990s IEEE Spectrum magazine ran a regular column called EV Watch, only to retire it at the end of the decade because there just wasn't enough to watch. This year we'll find out whether it was worth resuming the watch.

(2) Smart grid returns. The U.S. government having invested billions of dollars during the last two years in smart grid infrastructure, with smart meter rollouts leading the way, consumers and utilities are getting keen to see payback in terms of lower prices and costs. The credibility of the smart grid vision is seen to be at stake. Though the threshold may not be as sharp as with EVs, if there is nothing concrete to show for all the work by the end of the year, consumers won't be pleased and utilities will find themselves on the defensive.

The Energy Department would dearly like to obtain congressional authorization for a second big round of smart grid grants. But it won't be easy to round up a business consensus in support of such subsidies, or find favor in the environmental community, if it appears that money is being poured down the drain.

Fifteen years ago Spectrum published articles about the promise of flexible AC transmission--FACTS--with a sense that the technologies packaged under that name would soon be widely deployed. Nothing much happened. Has the time for FACTS now really arrived?

(3) U.S. energy trends. Though the Obama administration has aggressively promoted development of green energy technology, it gave up on trying to get a comprehensive energy and climate bill through Congress. That signaled the collapse of any concerted national effort to wean the country from fossil fuels. Yet spontaneous trends in the energy sector may be accomplishing much of what the government hoped to achieve with policy. The boom in unconventional gas already has prompted a distinct drop in coal-fired power generation, which is sure to translate into lower greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. power sector's carbon dioxide emissions decreased to 5,400 million metric tons in 2009 from 5,800 million metric tons the year before. The results for 2010 are likely to be still better, but we won't know for sure until the numbers are in.

Meanwhile, oil prices have remained stubbornly high, leading to reductions in U.S. gasoline consumption and lower emissions from that sector too. Michael Klare of Amherst College has declared the era of easy oil to be over, and he appears to have few detractors.

Early in the last decade, a blue ribbon group sponsored by Princeton University proposed deliberating taxing up the price of gasoline to $5 per gallon. It seemed ridiculous, and was ridiculous, to suppose that Americans and their political representatives would ever embrace the idea. But now we are hearing a former CEO of Shell Oil predict that we will have $5 gasoline by 2012,.

(4) Greenhouse gas regulation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to start issuing rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions, pursuant to a Supreme Court decision authorizing and indeed arguably requiring the step. But whatever EPA does is  sure to be challenged in court, and the issue is almost sure to find its way back to the highest court, now minus Sandra Day O'Connor, who provided the crucial swing vote before.

The Supreme Court doesn't like to reverse its own decisions, especially rather recent ones. But if I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet they won't reverse themselves in this instance.

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