Previous Breakfast Forum Topics

The RTEC Breakfast Forums were held on the third Thursday  of each month, commencing in November 2009.  In May, 2010 we switched to holding on the third Tuesday.  In November 2010, forums have been moved back to the third Thursday of each month. The following topics have been discussed in chronological order.  The topics are typically made known about two weeks prior to the meeting.

Energy Independence: Is it just smoke? The talk of energy independence has grown in recent times.  Certainly the US is awash in natural gas.  Light shale oil is being produced in leaps and bounds, displacing imported oil.  The spread in price between natural gas and oil will undoubtedly cause gas sourced transport fuel and chemicals that ordinarily were produced from oil.  That oil imports will drop is not in doubt.  But how does this connect with the notion of energy independence?  In fact in an increasingly interdependent world economy, what is the desirability of such a concept?  Independence has a ring to it that grabs attention.  Perhaps the notion ought to be lack of dependence.  Or perhaps dependence only on friendlies.  What then is the role of renewables in reducing oil imports and how does that play against the backdrop of cheap gas?

Electric Vehicles Revisited: Two years ago we discussed electric vehicles (EV’s) in this forum and we were very bullish.  We believed that battery costs would need to be well under $250 per kWh for favorable economics and progress was being made.  But lately the mood has soured, with weak sales and seeming flattening of progress on battery costs.  The Boeing Dreamliner snafu has not helped.  But the biggest challenge to a rapid transition to electric drives could well be from alternative fuels.  Five years ago the perceived solution to reducing dependency on foreign oil was a combination of EV’s and biofuels.  Now with cheap natural gas for the next couple of decades one is forced to examine that simple premise.  Even an “all of the above” approach will invite comparisons.  So how do EV’s stack up against CNG, LNG, methanol and dimethyl ether on pure economics?  And what of the comparative benefits to the environment and public health?  There is also the matter of fuel tax.  The NC legislature is proposing a flat tax of $100 at the time of registration to make up for the fact that a fuel tax is not paid for charging an EV.  Is this fair, and if not, what is?  Same goes for CNG.

Energy/ Agricultural Nexus: Feeding the worlds people is a well-recognized challenge. But hidden in the fine print are two recent realities. The developing nations have growing economies which we have previously discussed relevant to increased need for transport fuel. But per capita GDP growth also has a straight line correlation with increased consumption of meat, the most energetically inefficient source of food. Also, increased relative affluence causes a shift from human and animal labor on farms to the use of fossil fuels. Some of these trends can be mitigated. The NC Public Utilities Commission has seen a significant increase in permits for solar installations of 20 to 30MW for farms. Distributed generation of fuel, inclusive of methane from refuse and liquid fuel from cellulose or lignin, are options. Optimizing yields of plants and animals are targets already sought. Is the farm to fork movement energetically favored? Come discuss.

Whither North Carolina Biomass Conversation: North Carolina appears to be very well positioned to convert biomass to fuel.  Woody biomass is a major resource and if exploited could create jobs in currently economically depressed areas.  Cellulosic crops appear to be particularly  advantaged by co-location with hog waste spray fields, an inexpensive source of nitrogen.  But challenges have cropped up for some of these avenues.  Not the least is the fact that natural gas is cheap and predicted to remain cheap for decades.  Some of the biomass conversion means are affected by this competition, but not all.  The most promising cellulosic crop is being objected to by some as being potentially invasive.  All logging residue, slash, is not readily accessible.  On balance the positives come out on top, not the least due to innovative processes.

The Cases for Hydrogen and Gas as Natural Transport Fuels: The Hydrogen Highway was a Bush era concept.  Some of the shortcomings as a transport fuel, such as low calorific density, were addressed over the years in national labs, among other places.  More recently direct use of natural gas in transport has had greater momentum.  In an interesting twist, natural gas use may be enabled by research conducted for hydrogen storage.  A significant advantage of hydrogen, that of zero carbon emissions, is hamstrung by absence of a price on carbon.  But electric cars are taking a hold, albeit more slowly than expected.  They will be agnostic regarding the electricity source, which could be a hydrogen fuel cell.  But all of hydrogen today is produced from fossil fuels.  Is other sourcing realistic?  Come discuss.

Feeding our Oil Habit: Difficult Choices: The Keystone XL papers are on the President’s desk.  The Sundance Kid blogs in the Huff Post that Canadian oil is “dirty” and must not sully our land. So, how “dirty” is Canadian oil and what are our alternatives?  We have discussed the undeniably admirable goal of substitution of oil based fuel with more sustainably sourced alternatives.  But most recognize that cold turkey is not an option.  Our domestic production increasingly relies on shale oil, the process for extraction of which has its own opponents.  If the Keystone XL is not sanctioned the slack will almost certainly be picked up by Venezuelan oil.  How clean is that?  Are Middle East alternatives the most preferable?  Should the national priority shift to simply using less, and how practical is that?  Aside from policy implications, we will also discuss technologies to address the concerns with each alternative.

Can North Carolina Profit from Shale Gas without drilling for it? The prospect of shale gas driven prosperity in NC is creating deep divisions fueled by environmental concerns.  We present for discussion the proposition that the state could get the gain without a risk of the pain.  Firstly there is reason to believe that NC gas may not be attractive to producers because of its nature.  But whether we produce in this state or not, we can effectively use it and create jobs with this use.  Cheap natural gas and associated ethane are luring back to our shores chemical industry that had fled earlier in the last decade due to high and uncertain gas prices.  We should consider enabling the construction of processing plants in this state.  The US already is one of the lowest cost producers of ammonia based fertilizer because 90% of the cost is in the gas.  We will discuss the value add economics of conversion and what it could do to prosperity for the state.  Export would not be out of the question and the Wilmington area already has some of the right worker competencies and a port.  This and other means for capitalizing on cheap shale gas will be discoursed upon.

Solar Energy: Current Realities: Solar energy is entering an interesting phase.  The key take away from the Solyndra debacle is not the wisdom of the DOE investment, but the plummeting of solar panel prices that caused it.  India, with significant areas with over 300 days of sunlight is capitalizing on this with a current government forecast of 20 GW by 2022.  It increasingly appears that the opportunities for innovation and business creation lie downstream of the panel manufacture.  An interesting piece in the NY Times discusses some of these considerations, especially that of solar thermal based storage and how that may allow expensive natural gas peakers to be deemphasized.  We will discuss the facets of technology, relevance of off-grid generation, implications to energy cost and appropriate policy to capitalize on the tail wind behind solar energy.

Strategies for Using Less Energy: International Energy Agency modeling shows that any reasonable target for atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2050 will require that over 40% of the mitigation be from simply using less energy.  Sequestration will help but will not be nearly enough.  Using less can be from two distinct buckets: conservation and energy efficiency.  There is more of a behavioral element to the first, although the latter also could require changes in consumption habits.  Conservation causes us to examine the issue of personal versus public good.  It also means doing without something which is currently the norm in consumption.  Energy efficiency, on the other hand, could largely be addressed by technology such as low wattage devices, more efficient vehicles and smart grid enabled devices.  These concepts and others will be discussed in the contexts of electricity production and use and the transportation sector.  Of interest to the latter are strategies for simply using less energy per mile driven with or without loss of features.

Security of Energy Supply: Factoring in Cyber Attacks: Cyber attacks on mainstream activities got seeming legitimacy with the report that the President authorized such attacks on Iranian nuclear installations.  How real, therefore, is the vulnerability of our own energy infrastructure to such attacks. An expert guest will give us background for the discussion.  Certainly our energy system is becoming increasingly reliant on networked information technology.  The Smart Grid, or variants thereof, will make this increasingly so.  Nuclear fusion would concentrate US production in two to four installations.  Distributed power, including solar installations, would by definition be less susceptible. In something of a departure in format, we will have an expert present who will be a resource on the issue.  It will still be a moderated discussion, but we may have more traffic through the expert than is our norm.

Water Strategies in Energy: Nearly a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, drought incidence is seemingly on the increase (global warming?) and energy production can be a water hog.  Water usage per unit of energy produced varies by four orders of magnitude depending on the source of energy.  Depending on location this water usage competes with agriculture.  Energy strategies must include considerations of water.  Most agriculture, including that for biofuels, needs under 1,000 ppm salinity.  More salt tolerance will ease the situation.  Similarly, salt tolerance in petroleum production is feasible.  Technology breakthroughs in desalination should likely be a policy priority.  We will discuss whether water strategies should be integral to energy strategies, at state and national levels.

Biomass Conversion: Current Realities: Conversion of biomass to fuel for electricity and transportation is a challenging yet worthwhile objective.  The use of grain, seed and the like have issues with water usage and associated NOx emissions.  Biomass is less challenged in these areas and can also be a waste product, as in the case of corn stover and bagasse.  Federal targets for “second generation” biofuels have been reduced, in apparent recognition of the techno-economic difficulty.  We will discuss the various options for conversion, including pyrolysis to produce drop-in fuels and recent advances in densification of biomass, allowing for transport.  The discussion will juxtapose biomass for electricity and transport fuel, and the current economic drivers for each.

Will Energy Efficiency Provide a Net Gain for the Environment? We all take it as a given that energy efficiency will benefit the environment.  The Jevons Paradox gives us something to discuss.  It basically suggests that as a device becomes more energy efficient we will simply use it more, negating much of the benefit.  The miles per gallon of automobiles have increased over the years; what has it done for consumption?  Turns out the news is not so good on that front.  Electric Vehicles are about 60% more efficient than conventional ones.  Will they really be a net gain for the environment?  What about lighting: is it similarly encumbered?  Even assuming Jevons is right, efficiency accompanied by policy actions could net improvements in the environment.  We will discuss the Paradox and the measures one may take to ameliorate it.

Can Electric Vehicles Make a Real Difference? On July 18-21, the PlugIn 2011 conference will be held in Raleigh, N.C., for the first time ever outside of California.  It is appropriate therefore, for us to have this session devoted to the promise of electric vehicles.  Some argue that an electric vehicle is only as clean as the source of electricity.  Others wonder whether how long it would be to have a material impact.  When will EV’s be cost-competitive with regular cars, and what technologies will get us there?  Can business models overcome some of the hurdles such as range anxiety?  While the purpose of the conference is in fact to shed light on all of these issues, we could get a head start with our discussions.

Wind Needs a Lift The imperative for wind as a base load source just went way up.  The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is clearly putting a damper on nuclear, both on permit extensions of useful life (as in Germany) and in new plants (as already in southern Texas).  Nuclear was an important element in a low carbon future.  Its replacement with natural gas will create a carbon deficit.  Wind is the only large scale solution close to economic parity with conventional sources.  Offshore wind is more continuous than that on land.  But it has other issues, not the least being infrastructure for delivery.  Land wind has opposition too.  In general, wind also needs a smarter grid and storage mechanisms.  But it is scaleable; so lead time to initial delivery is short, in base load terms.  We will discuss the hurdles and solutions, as well as the recent North Carolina legislation and implications.

Fukushima Fallout: Whither U.S. Nuclear Future? Our Breakfast regular Alan Rominger will kick this off with an informed view of what likely happened and the considerations in any public debate, including the treatment of low probability events in nuclear safety.  We will then discuss the various implications.  The nuclear option was already burdened with high capital costs and long lead times.  Assuming at least a short term slow down, which sector benefits?  Will clean coal get new life, cheap natural gas swamp the power market, wind get a major lift?  Every option has down sides and associated detractors.  Once the dust has settled some on Fukushima, a coherent national energy policy may be more critical than ever.

Turning Oil into Salt
At a recent conference in Raleigh on Energy Security, Anne Korin discussed the concept of energy independence through fuel choice.  Until early last century, salt was a strategic commodity because it was a key to food preservation.  Economic security required it, and by extension, so did military security resulting in wars over salt.  Technology in the form of canning and refrigeration changed all that.  And oil is the salt of today.  We will discuss the means by which technology and policy could possibly reduce oil to a useful, but no longer strategic commodity.  Korin suggests in her book of the same title as our topic, that one way would be to make all vehicles fuel agnostic, opening the way for cost-competitive substitute fuels.  Her favorite is methanol, which is currently priced at around a dollar a gallon.

Energy Security:  What Does it Mean For Us?: The International Energy Agency  (IEA) defines Energy Security as “uninterrupted physical availability of energy at affordable prices, while respecting the environment”.  We will discuss this in the context of the nation and of the state of North Carolina.  Also, some of us may feel this definition is too limiting.  Certainly in the past, a threat to energy supply has led to armed conflict and the support of governments with debatable records. In the post-election climate, energy security will resonate better than climate change,  yet certain measures will in fact address both.  The discussion, as always, will include elements of technology, economics and enabling policy.

Implications of New State and Federal Leadership on Clean Energy Enterprise: The dramatic shift in political balance in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress is bound to have an effect on clean energy enterprise.  There is little doubt that national carbon “tax” legislation will be put off for a long time.  This will remove an economic incentive for cleaner energy.  Is IGCC a dying duck?  More broadly, how will carbon sequestration technology shift in response?   Other policies could still have a positive effect.  Energy efficiency makes sense even without the low carbon imperative.  Maybe states should take more of a lead in this and not wait on national energy policy.  Replacing oil for transportation has stand alone implications to national security.  Also, what are the potential positive implications to businesses through more Republican driven philosophy?  We will discuss these possibilities.

Transforming Transportation:  Needed for a Sustainable Energy Future: Transportation is by far the single biggest user of oil.  History has shown that with per capita income growth comes increased ownership of vehicles.  India and China show no signs of slowing in this area, so demand will inexorably power up.  This, combined with an upcoming plateau in oil production, will result in sustained higher oil prices.  Transportation needs a transformative change that ultimately results in drastic reduction in the use of oil.  Obviously, the benefits of this extend to a reduced carbon footprint and the energy security of net importing nations, which numbers India and China among them.  We will discuss the means to accomplish this, including fuel substitution, electric vehicles, vehicle efficiency, urban planning and the economics and policy drivers for all these and more.

Energy Storage: Key to a Sustainable Energy Future: A sustainable energy future will involve low carbon sources of electricity, an intelligent grid and measures to reduce oil usage.  First, there are wind, solar and small scale hydroelectricity.  Then there are biofuels, alternative transport fuels and more fuel efficient cars, including electric cars.  All of the foregoing either require, or are significantly advantaged by chemical and electrochemical storage.  Also not be ignored is the effective use of storage in the form of dams.  We will discuss the future of storage from the standpoint of technical feasibility, economics and associated policy.

The Energy/Water Nexus: Shale gas is a newly discovered resource that has the potential for rendering the U.S. self-sufficient for a very long time while allowing the use of natural gas as a transitional fuel to replace coal and reducing carbon energy production.  High use of fresh water and the salinity of associated with production are hotly debated as limiting the potential of this resource.  Some biofuels are now being reported as having heavy water footprints, as much as two to three orders of magnitude greater than that of fossil fuel based diesel.

Energy Landscape Following Installation of the New Administration: The topic this time is as shown above and could cover both likely policy changes and the containment of the recession, with knock on effects on demand, investment climate and the like, with further effect on alternative energy and climate change objectives.  Future topics are likely to be more focused on specific challenges.

Future of Biofuels in an Uncertain Economy: We intend this time to discuss the topic indicated, with likely emphasis on the recession, and its possible impact on biofuels.  Issues discussed  may include:  likelihood of continued low prices of gasoline and diesel and impact thereof, high cost of processing plants especially in the face of limited capital availability, offset by falling prices on steel and other structural commodities, and possible actions by the new administration.

Can Photovoltaics Provide >10% of World’s Electricity?: This time we will have a short presentation by Bob Conner introducing the topic and setting the stage for discussion.  Attached is some material he put together for your perusal prior to arrival, and we will also have hard copies available.

Will Electric Vehicles Make a Real Difference?: This topic relates to the RTEC conference on May 27, entitled Electrifying Transportation: a Route to Energy Security.  We will discuss the hurdles to wide scale adoption and the desirability thereof, from the standpoint both of energy security and mitigation of carbon dioxide.

Carbon Sequestration: Techno-economic Viability and Impact on Energy Industry:

The Smart Grid: Implications to the Energy Landscape: We shall describe the essential elements of the Smart Grid and then discuss the impact on a variety of energy related issues.  These include: enabling variable output electricity sources such as wind and solar, leveling the load to optimize delivery and enable cost effective charging of electric cars, grid segmentation for less down time, and potential for energy conservation by consumers.  Also, who will pay for the Smart Grid, and what can be achieved sooner with a semi-smart grid?

Public Acceptance of Green Goods and Services: As a prelude to our conference Electrifying Transportation:  a Road to Energy Security on May 27 ( we will discuss the public drivers to accept or choose green goods and services.  The discussion will be in the context of alternative energies, lowering the carbon footprint of consumer and industry articles of usage and all other manner in which society is affected by the climate change initiatives.  The softer, non financial, drivers such as conformance to societal norms, will be discussed as to their materiality, and how these may inform on public policy and on investment in green industries.

Wind Energy:  the Opportunities and Challenges: Wind energy has much to recommend itself, including the capability for distributed power and modular designs allowing for early output in the investment cycle, unlike many base load generators. We will discuss technical and policy challenges and solutions including: intermittency; bird and bat effects; as well as permitting and incentive regimes.

Sustainable Buildings: the Promise and the Practicality: According to the Energy Secretary, buildings consume 40% of our energy budget.  Some experts believe that buildings can be designed to use a third to half less energy for little or not added cost (see We will discuss the realities we face in addressing claims such as these, including needed technology and policies, and enabling factors such as modified building codes and changing the perception of people.

Biofuels: Technical and Economic Considerations of Alternatives: Biofuels can run the gamut from gasoline and diesel for transportation, to syngas for power production, to ammonia for fertilizer, to name a few.  The feedstock of increasing favor is some form of biomass as opposed to crops competing with agriculture.  ExxonMobil, a powerhouse, has stayed on the sidelines until the recent announcement of $600 million investment in a biochemical approach to fuel from algae. We will discuss the biochemical and thermochemical methods, the differences and similarities in the end products, and the likely economics of these approaches.

Is Clean Energy the Next Growth Industry?: One can reasonably posit that carbon mitigation and energy independence goals will not be met without substantial industrial initiative, and this in turn will require sound economic fundamentals.  In other words clean energy has to produce a profit.  Many state that a necessary condition is a price on carbon.  Some believe that this may even be a sufficient condition as well; that American entrepreneurism will in the normal course of events make this a growth industry.  We will debate this premise in addition to discussing the viability of even the first taking place, to wit the Senate fate of a Waxman-Markey variant.  We will also touch on the possibility of American competitiveness being damaged if other countries are able to make this happen.

Natural Gas: Viable Transitional Strategy for Carbon Mitigation?: The recent Federal award of $2.4 billion in stimulus money to electric car related endeavors has raised several voices, including those complaining that “dirty” coal will power these vehicles.  If one allows that electric cars provide a net benefit to the environment (and we can debate this as well), one must face the issue that the carbon mitigation burden merely shifts to the power plant.  At least one powerful NGO is suggesting that natural gas fueled electricity is a viable transitional strategy.  We will debate this against the back drop of the practical realities of clean coal in the medium term, the availability and cost of natural gas, the environmental impact of increased natural gas production and the impact of upcoming carbon mitigation policies on the various elements including green electricity alternatives.

How Green is Nuclear Energy?  How Green could it be?: Many see nuclear energy as an essential component of a sustainable energy future.  However, there are issues which give pause, such as fission product disposal and associated national security and policy issues.  These will be discussed, particularly newer technologies that ameliorate the problems, including “nuclear batteries”.  Will nuclear fission, and the grand experiment in France, finally deliver?

Energy Efficiency:  How can Society be persuaded to Use Materially Less Energy?: The International Energy Agency has estimated that to achieve reasonable carbon dioxide goals by 2050, 40 percent of the contribution to mitigation must come from simply using less energy.  For this discussion we will leave aside the gains from efficient buildings, a topic of a previous forum.  We will discuss the other walks of life in which gains can be made, first from the standpoint of technologies to provide the same gratification with less energy, including also the business potential of this avenue. Then we will discuss the viability of behavior changes and the means by which these may be achieved.

Technologies for a Low Carbon Future:  Evolution or Revolution?: There is currently a general air of pessimism regarding the materiality of impact of low carbon technologies in the twenty year time frame (see Wall Street Journal, Feb 22, R1), with many positing that penetration of over 20% is not likely.  The Department of Energy believes incremental methods are not going to do it and is funding three Innovation Hubs to revolutionize the identified sectors.  Industry has produced dramatic behavior modifying technologies in other fields with known methods of development and venture funding, in some cases with great speed.  What makes energy different?  We will discuss this against the backdrop of alternative energy technologies, their needs, the role of policy in facilitating the goals and the like.

DO INHERENT SUBSIDIES TO FOSSIL FUEL HURT RENEWABLES?: Fossil fuels today carry inherent subsidies by not being taxed on the basis of societal impact.  They are not alone in this.  Cigarettes for a long time, and today the examples include dairy farming and beef.  The latter are for non recognition of the methane (60 times carbon dioxide as a GHG) released and the former for health consequences to society.  We will examine first the fossil fuel related hidden subsidies and possible remedies.  We may broaden the discussion into non fuel areas to the extent that the remedies may inform on possible policies in the energy sector.