U.S. energy secretary tackles future of electricity

Stephen Chu, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), spoke during the opening keynote discussion at the 2012 National Electricity Forum, which began Feb. 8 in Washington D.C. “Visualizing the 21st Century Electricity Industry” was the theme for the two-day meeting, co-sponsored by the DOE’s Office of Electricity, Delivery and Energy Reliability and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).

Early in the session, Chu made reference to Kirchoff’s Law. Chu’s point was that the old idea, that you generate electricity and it flows downhill has seen its day. This is a big change—one that Chu said “is scary to a lot of people.”

How will the electricity industry handle alternative generation? Chu’s answer—right now, gas-generated power is cheapest. Wind power, which Chu said is “cheaper than coal,” comes in second with coal in third place and solar next. “Solar modules…are now one-fifth the price of four years ago.”

Chu said the DOE expects solar PV modules to drop significantly more in price in the next four years. By that time, he said “solar will be as cheap as gas, wind and coal.”

As he has in previous speaking engagements, Chu referenced California in making his point about energy efficiency. While electricity rates have gone up in that state, he said, “over 35 years bills [for most users] have been flat.” The reason is efficiency.

Chu also answered a question about educating consumers. He said the electrical industry should tell consumers, “You don’t have to throw your money away if you do very, very simple things.”

What about energy storage? Chu said if an electrical system gets to 20% to 25% renewables—in terms of the amount of electricity generated by wind, solar and other alternatives on average, over a year’s time—energy storage will be a cost and may not be necessary or justifiable. But once that system gets closer to 50% renewables, storage will be a must.

Chu spent a good amount of time talking about energy storage, including relating the tale of the Texas Medical Center in Houston where water is cooled using cheap electricity in the evening, then used during the day for the center’s air-conditioning system.

David Wright, vice chairmain of the South Carolina Public Service Commission and president of NARUC also appeared on the panel, but Chu did most of the talking. At one point, when his turn came to answer a question, Wright joked about not wanting to argue a key point with Chu, a Nobel Prize winner.

The sessions that followed on the event’s first day all focused on the future. Speakers were asked to think about what the electricity industry in the U.S. might look like in 2035.

Apparently, the future is popular topic. An introductory speaker noted that attendance was up 25% over last year, “in a time of shrinking travel budgets.”

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