Visions of a sustainable future: Q&A with Jamais Cascio

Futurist Jamais Cascio at an event in 2009. (Photo by Anne Helmond via Creative Commons)

Futurist Jamais Cascio at an event in 2009. (Photo by Anne Helmond via Creative Commons)

Jamais Cascio is a futurist, a writer, and, as he puts it, an “easily distracted generalist.”

But there’s a method to his madness, and that method could help us discern a path through today’s intertwined climate and energy crises to a sustainable future.

We caught up with Cascio in the run-up to his talk tonight at Ensia Live, a speaking series in Minneapolis that asks what it will take to solve our biggest environmental challenges (Midwest Energy News is a media sponsor for the event).

In the following conversation, which was edited for clarity and length, Cascio, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, described paths to a sustainable world, the nature of world-changing ideas, and why talking about the apocalypse is boring.

Can the grid handle distributed renewable energy?

"Smart" switches on power lines can help regulate a two-way flow of electricity. (Photo via Department of Energy)

“Smart” switches on power lines can help regulate a two-way flow of electricity. (Photo via Department of Energy)

As solar panels and electric cars catch on among consumers, managing the grid becomes an increasingly vexing challenge for utilities.

To keep track of these and other distributed energy resources, utilities are installing ever more smart meters and other monitoring equipment. They now need to track far more data from far-flung locations just to reliably keep the power on.

The challenge is not insurmountable, but going forward the electric power industry will need new technology and new business and regulatory models, three experts said last week at the annual conference of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E).

Commentary: Ending the energy ‘Stone Age,’ and other lessons from ARPA-E

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told this year's ARPA-E conference "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones - we advanced to better solutions." (Photo via Department of Energy)

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told this year’s ARPA-E conference “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones – we advanced to better solutions.” (Photo via Department of Energy)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Midwest Energy News reporter Dan Ferber spent three days near Washington, D.C., at the annual Energy Innovation Summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency­—Energy (ARPA-E).

Few vantage points are better for viewing the nation’s evolving energy landscape than the Energy Innovations Summit, ARPA-E’s annual conference, which took place three days last week at a convention center on the Potomac River, a few miles from the White House.

Although the conference sometimes seemed like a giant infomercial for ARPA-E, keynotes by senators, industrialists, mayors and a university president offered valuable insights, highlighting the the dramatic changes going on across the energy landscape, and the excitement over new and potentially game-changing technologies and the hurdles they face before they change the energy landscape.

Group says U.S. energy policy ‘like an orchestra without a conductor’

(Photo courtesy Bipartisan Policy Coalition)

(Photo courtesy Bipartisan Policy Center)

To achieve true energy security, the United States badly needs a single federal energy policy and a new White House council to make it happen, retired Marine Corps General Jim Jones said this week at the annual conference of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E).

The recommendation was just one part of a comprehensive overhaul of federal energy policy that the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a Beltway think tank Jones helps run, called for in a report released Wednesday.

More than 20 federal agencies now have a hand in creating energy policy, and they routinely work at cross-purposes. The result is a confused muddle that does not serve the nation, Jones said.

The long road to building a clean-energy company

(Photo by Marc Macleod via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Marc Macleod via Creative Commons)

What does it take for an early-stage company with a potentially game-changing technology to snag the investments they need to make it in today’s clean-energy marketplace?

At a pitching session on Monday night before hundreds of people at the annual conference of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), leaders of eight start-up companies vied to find out.

What they learned was that even a good idea and a working concept aren’t necessarily enough to get venture capitalists to part with their money.

At the event, each company leader gave a three-minute pitch to a panel of four experienced clean-energy investors, and, after some Q&A, the investors offered some tough judgments—and advice to help the company attract the cash it needed to grow.

New England offshore wind planning offers lessons for Great Lakes

Offshore wind farms, like this one in Denmark, are common in Europe, but the United States has yet to build one. (Photo by Felix Montino via Creative Commons)

Offshore wind farms, like this one in Denmark, are common in Europe, but the United States has yet to build one. (Photo by Felix Montino via Creative Commons)

When Scandia, a Norwegian wind company, announced its plans to install 200 turbines in Lake Michigan four miles from the tourist town of Ludington, Michigan, in 2009, they likely didn’t anticipate the controversy that would erupt.

After all, the project would be delivering domestically produced renewable energy to replace planet-warming fossil fuels. It would create local jobs installing and operating the turbines. A nearby pumped-hydro facility for storing backup energy sat in the nearby dunes, complete with substations and high-voltage lines they could use to move electricity from their offshore turbines to the grid.

“The developer thought, We’ll build wind farms out in Lake Michigan, hook up in Ludington, and everyone will be delighted,” recalled Arn Boezaart, director of the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center at Grand Valley State University.

Instead, “they were basically run out of town,” Boezaart recalled.

Research finds additional harm from coal dust exposure

Dust blows from a coal train in Maryland. (Photo by paulv2c via Creative Commons)

Dust blows from a coal train in Maryland. (Photo by paulv2c via Creative Commons)

For years, many miners who breathed in too much coal dust got sick and died of black lung disease.

But coal dust can cause serious health problems above ground as well, according to studies by a public-health researcher presented in Boston Sunday at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

People who live near mountain-removal mines are especially at risk, but so are neighbors of other surface mines and anyone who’s exposed to blowing dust from uncovered piles of crushed or pulverized coal, said Melissa Ahern of Washington State University. And unless precautions are taken, wind can whip coal dust from power plants, shipping facilities, trains, trucks or factories.

In Indiana, seeking to ramp up wind without state mandates

(Photo by Justin Leonard via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Justin Leonard via Creative Commons)

Despite Indiana’s abundant wind resources, renewables provide just 3 percent of the state’s electricity, far less than in other states, and 85 percent of the state’s electricity is generated by burning coal.

Not coincidentally, the conservative state legislature has rejected state renewable energy mandates that have spurred wind development elsewhere in the Midwest.

But a wind-energy coalition thinks they’ve found another way to expand renewable energy in the state, without government mandates.

The Indiana Power of Wind coalition is pushing legislation that would allow wind and natural gas to compete directly with coal on the basis of price when utilities procure new generation. Under the plan, when a utility needs new generation capacity, an independent entity would evaluate all possible sources of new electricity generation, including renewables.

“We want competitive procurement for all forms of energy,” Tony Samuel, a lobbyist for the organization, tells Midwest Energy News. “That speaks to our confidence that wind will be competitive,” he added.

Illinois town deals setback to controversial coal mine plan

Plans for a controversial coal mine in Eastern Illinois farm country ground to an unexpected halt Monday evening when the village of Homer, Illinois, voted not to provide the coal company with water it needs to operate the mine.

Although the mine’s fate is still undecided, the vote was an important victory for activists trying to stop the mine.

It “represents a sea change,” said Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist at Prairie Rivers Network, a Champaign, Illinois, environmental group. “I think we’re starting to see decision makers value water over any potential benefits from hosting a coal mine.”

The Prairie Rivers Network is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Sunrise Coal spokeswoman Suzanne Jaworowski had a very different take on the vote. “This won’t stop the project,” she said.

Ohio State’s carbon-capture breakthrough still has long road to adoption

Ohio State University  Prof. Liang-Shih Fan (right) shows Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Charles McConnell OSU's coal direct chemical looping reactor. (Photo by Niranjani Deshpande / Department of Energy)

Ohio State University Prof. Liang-Shih Fan (right) shows Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Charles McConnell OSU’s coal direct chemical looping reactor. (Photo by Niranjani Deshpande / Department of Energy)

A clean-coal technology that captures more than 99 percent of coal’s carbon dioxide emissions has passed an early but important milestone on the path to commercial use, but still awaits an opportunity to be proven in a real-world setting.

The technology, developed by Ohio State University researchers with funding from the Department of Energy, could reduce the cost of carbon dioxide capture by more than half if implemented on a commercial scale, according to the researchers.

Meanwhile, a larger pilot plant using a related Ohio State carbon-capture technology is being built in Alabama.

Burning coal for electricity produces twice as much planet-warming carbon dioxide as burning natural gas, along with other pollutants that cause acid rain and jeopardize human health. However, the United States holds one-fourth of the world’s known coal reserves, and coal has in the past been relatively affordable, so the Department of Energy has sought new ways to burn coal for electricity without polluting the air.

To do this, carbon dioxide and other pollutants must be captured before they are released to the atmosphere. Scrubber technologies are available now to do that for common air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and such scrubbers are now installed on many (but not all) U.S. coal-fired power plants.