Ask Josh Fox Anything: “We Have A Choice”

The Gasland filmmaker weighs in on whether or not the US can completely ditch fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy like wind and solar:

The Mark Jacobson renewable energy article for the US that Josh mentions is here (pdf). Jacobson’s plan for New York state is here. Elsewhere, Todd Woody profiles a new technology that reduces wind’s intermittency problem:

The rap against wind energy is that it’s fickle, generating massive amounts of electricity one hour and next to nothing the next. That plays havoc with the power grid and the problem is only growing as wind becomes a bigger part of the power mix. … But what if every wind turbine became a node in an energy internet, communicating with the grid and each other to adjust electricity production while storing and releasing electricity as needed? That’s the idea behind General Electric’s new “brilliant” turbine, the first three of which the company said today will be installed at a Texas wind farm operated by Invenergy.

The 2.5-MW windmill is something of a technological leap in an industry where turbines have gotten bigger and bigger but not necessarily smarter. The turbine’s software captures tens of thousands of data points each second on wind and grid conditions and then adjusts production, storing electricity in an attached 50 kilowatt-hour sodium nickel chloride battery. If, say, a wind farm is generating too much electricity to absorbed by the grid—not an uncommon occurrence in gusty west Texas—it can store the electricity in the battery. When the wind dies down, the electricity can be released from the battery and put back on the grid.

And related to yesterday’s video, in which Fox made a case for all fossil fuels being equally bad, Michael Levi, responding to a report indicating that there are sufficient worldwide coal reserves to warm the planet by 27° F, worries that we are not weaning ourselves off coal fast enough:

Even if the natural gas boom were to eventually spread from the United States to the rest of the world, coal-fired power could well continue to dominate much of the global energy system for decades. So natural gas doesn’t let us off the hook for a decade or two while we figure out how to make zero-carbon energy thrive. Indeed it doesn’t even give the United States a pass. In May 2012, fracking briefly spurred gas to pass coal as the top source of U.S. electricity. But as natural gas prices recovered, coal regained its top rank, a position most expect it to retain for decades to come. That won’t cut it if we’re going to seriously tackle climate change. To be certain, cheap gas makes it less expensive to cut our emissions, by shifting away from traditional coal. But we’ll still need governments to step in and tip the balance, whether through new regulations or a price on carbon that gives gas an advantage over coal. …

A shortage of fossil fuels isn’t going to save us from dangerous climate change. And plans that depend on one or another technological breakthrough are far too risky to bet our future on. We need to move forward with gas, using it to edge aside coal, even as we push ahead on a host of zero-carbon opportunities. That’s the best way to maximize the odds that we’ll ultimately be able to deal effectively with climate change.

Josh Fox’s Gasland Part II will air on HBO this summer. His other Ask Anything answers are here. Full archive here.