Some scary stats about greening the grid

We have big homes, we use a lot of power, and we want clean air. Americans will have to pay for this, say the CEOs of two large utilities.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.--It's going to take one big pile of money and a lot of work to go green, according to CEOs of two of the country's larger utilities.

By 2020, approximately $750 billion to $800 billion will have to be invested in the electrical grid and generating infrastructure, said Jeff Sterba, CEO of PNM Resources at the Clean Tech Investor Summit taking place here. That's as much as has been invested in the grid to date.

"In 13 years, we will double the amount of investment that has ever been made," he said.

The problem facing the electrical industry is multifaceted, he noted. Demand continues to increase. American homes are 30 percent larger in terms of square footage and 50 percent larger in cubic footage than they were 20 years ago, which means higher heating and air conditioning costs. Electricity demand will likely climb 40 percent from today by 2030. By 2050, the amount of electrical capacity in the U.S. will double from today's level, and triple from today's level by 2095.

Building plants, meanwhile, is more expensive because commodities such as copper, steel, and cement have risen drastically in four years. Environmental expectations are also higher. The air is actually 40 percent cleaner than it was 25 years ago, he added.

Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, painted a similar picture. Duke is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the country and 12th worldwide. If Duke were a nation, it would rank 41st among 192 nations. Duke's goal is to reduce its emissions by 60 to 80 percent by 2050. By 2050, the utility expects to have replaced all of its existing plants with cleaner ones. That's a lot of construction projects.

So who is going to pay for this? Utilities naturally will have to invest, but funds will have to come from other sources to pay for some of the research. Both Rogers and Sterba advocated a carbon cap and trade system, which would force companies to buy carbon credits to offset emissions. The money should then be funneled into public/private development projects, they said.

Both utilities are also experimenting with renewables and other clean technologies. Duke is building a 1,000 megawatt plant in Indiana that will feature a carbon capture and sequestration facility. It is working with Princeton University on the project. It is also trying to encourage customers to install solar. Additionally, Duke is applying to build new nuclear reactors. (Duke, incidentally, is building what could be the last conventional coal plant they ever erect in North Carolina. It replaces some older ones that emit more sulfur and nitrogen gases.)

Sterba, meanwhile, emphasized energy-efficiency technologies and microgrids, local power plants that provide power for neighborhoods or city regions. He also wants to see more development in energy storage.

"The one thing that will change our industry more than anything else is storage," he said. "We sell a commodity that has to be delivered instantaneously."

 

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