UChicago, Argonne scientists gather to discuss nation's energy future

There’s an old saying that making predictions is tough, especially when they’re about the future.

Nevertheless, panelists at “Clean Energy 2030: Building a Sustainable Future,” the eighth event in the University of Chicago’s Joint Speaker Series, attempted to do just that in an area that is notoriously difficult to predict—the nation’s energy future.

The Joint Speaker Series is organized by the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories to encourage University faculty members and scientists, researchers and engineers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to get better acquainted and to share their work.

Speakers at the most recent event included Mark Peters, deputy laboratory director for programs, Argonne; Leah Guzowski, energy policy scientist, decision and information sciences, Argonne; Hussein Khalil, director, nuclear engineering division, Argonne; Peter Littlewood, professor of physics, UChicago, and associate laboratory director, physical sciences and engineering, Argonne; and Robert Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, and co-director of UChicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

If this panel had gathered 15 years ago, it might have been titled “The Renaissance of Nuclear Energy;” 10 years ago, “The Future of Hydrogen;” five years ago, “The Promise of Renewables.” Instead, the panelists, who convened late last year, found themselves talking about “The Methane Economy“ and marveling at the new era of cheap natural gas—a “huge surprise,” said Peter Littlewood, an associate laboratory director at Argonne and professor of physics at the University.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, has driven down the cost of methane to the point where electricity in the United States costs as little as seven cents per kilowatt hour compared with 30 cents in Germany, where fracking is not a factor. Measured another way, the cost of one million BTUs is $4 in the United States and $18 in Japan where, again, fracking is not a factor.

This low cost of methane has changed the energy landscape in the United States, the panelists agreed. Natural gas has supplanted coal, sidetracked wind and solar power and put the brakes on nuclear power. The United States is becoming an energy exporter, and its energy security is much more assured than just a few years ago. 

Our abundance of methane has begun to alter the international landscape, as well. The coal that Americans are now reluctant to burn because it is dirtier than natural gas is being shipped in massive quantities to Asia, and manufacturing is returning to the United States due to the low cost of electricity here. Meanwhile, the domestic power generation industry is waiting to see whether much of the suddenly cheap natural gas will be exported and whether fracking will take hold around the world. The former would drive up the cost of methane while the latter would drive it down—yet another indication of how difficult it is to predict the future of energy.

“We have to think about energy globally,” said Leah Guzowski, an energy policy scientist at Argonne. “What happens in China, India and Brazil has a tremendous impact on our future,” she said, just as the decisions we make here affect the rest of the world.

“Our energy future is so important,” she said, “because science tells us that human survival depends on the decisions we make, here and abroad, about our energy future.”

Indeed, energy consumption worldwide is projected to grow 1.7 percent annually leading to an increase of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures by 2030, said Hussein Khalil, the director of Argonne’s nuclear engineering division.

“Energy analysis and research and development at universities and labs have important roles to play in determining the best routes to a clean energy future,” said panel moderator Mark Peters, deputy director of programs at Argonne.

Nuclear goes international

Most of the panelists projected that nuclear energy will be a major player long-term, even though for the past few decades it has not been a focus of the United States.

“As the only proven, expandable, steady and essentially non-emitting energy source, nuclear energy has enormous potential,” Khalil said. “It has lost a lot of steam lately, but this is a temporary setback due to our national failure to implement solutions for managing used nuclear fuel.”

The United States has lost its lead in this field, in part because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s research and development budget has been decimated, said Robert Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, and co-director of UChicago’s Energy Policy Institute.. Under current funding levels, “the NRC is incapable of licensing or certifying new reactor designs.” As a result, China is taking the lead in new reactor design and construction, with 27 plants under construction.

Renewables seek a role

The future of solar and wind power generation is unclear as well, said Guzowski. “Renewables will grow but will not become a major player or take on a significant base load.” This is because renewable energy has not been able to overcome its biggest technological hurdle, the energy storage problem, she said. “People always ask, what happens when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow?”

It is not clear how or when the energy storage issue will be resolved, panelists agreed. Perhaps nanoscience will help resolve this problem and make renewable energy more viable, Littlewood said; “the future of renewable energy generation lies in the hands of chemical engineers.”

The bottom line on energy is that the United States now operates in a methane economy. “This will create a bridge that could give us the 50 years of development time we need to achieve widespread use of renewables,” Littlewood said. “But whether anyone will have the policy savvy to make this happen is an enormous challenge.”

Khalil said that this bridge could lead to a renaissance of nuclear power. “The nuclear power industry needs to innovate,” he said, noting that the developing technology of small modular nuclear reactors makes plants easier to site, build and operate, and involves less financial risk.

The panelists discussed myriad other issues. Peters asked how the global trend toward urbanization would affect our energy future, given that 80 percent of the new demand for energy through 2030 will come from cities. Khalil asked how the scarcity of water will effect energy generation and use, given that great amounts of water are used to produce electricity.

Guzowski asked, “As long as energy is cheap and easy to use, will consumer attitudes toward efficiency and conservation ever change?” Noting that “energy prices should reflect true costs but they absolutely do not,” Rosner asked, “Would a carbon tax help?”

In light of the uncertainty surrounding such critical issues, all of the panelists agreed that a coherent, comprehensive, national energy policy is sorely needed. “We are one of the very few countries that does not have an energy policy, and it shows,” Rosner said.