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The Challenges and Opportunities of a Changing Energy Industry

By Paul Lee posted 01-07-2020 01:40 PM


The energy industry has changed dramatically since the turn of the century. It will continue to evolve as technological and environmental changes drive the industry to adapt. This change presents both challenges and opportunities for us engineers.

It is interesting to think that just one generation ago, most places burned coal as their primary source of electricity. Today, many communities are transitioning away from fossil fuel. For example, as of 2019, over a 3rd of California's energy came from renewables. California also recently passed into law Senate Bill 100 that calls for 100% clean energy by 2045.

As the popularity of 100% renewable policy increases, the industry is starting to see where the major technical hurdles are. There's a need for more energy storage. There's also a need to increase transmission to export renewable resources from their sources of origin. There are plentiful hydro resources in the north in Washington/Oregon, geothermal by the Salton Sea, solar in Arizona, and booming wind in Wyoming and New Mexico. Most urban areas, even if they could fill every roof with solar panels, would not have enough energy to serve its residents fully. The most abundant and affordable renewable resources are remote, waiting to be transported into city centers.

The industry is also starting to understand that to reach 100-percent clean energy it will need new technology. Unfortunately it is technology not yet been demonstrated at scale. It'll need to replace dispatchable natural gas with long-duration storage, which has become the holy grail for the energy transition. Current lithium-ion battery technology is most effective when storing energy for short periods. The industry will need technology that can shift energy across seasons and stay reliably dormant until we need it.

There are many other challenges unrelated to renewables. Buildings and vehicles are electrifying, and this presents another challenge and opportunity. We'll need to supply even more clean energy to replace gas stoves and gasoline cars. The need for smart and intelligent systems is becoming more and more apparent. Many other challenges are facing the evolving energy industry, challenges that engineers will have to address eventually, such as wildfire mitigation, workforce transition, and cybersecurity.

However, we've seen new technologies emerge promising solutions to our problems. There are a wide variety of new storage and innovations. Even solar and wind are evolving, with panel efficiency continually improving and with larger and larger wind turbines, offshore systems, and many new technologies coming to scale. Los Angeles has begun to look into hydrogen as a viable alternative and looking to see how Hoover Dam can become a massive energy storage battery.

Only time will tell what our portfolio will look like. Will a new battery technology dominate as its price falls? Will hydrogen allow us to keep our thermal power plants? Will nuclear make a comeback? Or will we continue to burn small amounts of fossil fuel but offset it with carbon capture? Perhaps someone will finally make that perpetual motion machine? It's hard to tell, but it will be essential to explore these potential pathways.

The momentum is here, and I believe it is unlikely that fossil fuels will come back as the dominant energy source for places like California. Renewable energy is becoming cheaper, and political forces are accelerating its adoption. Lawmakers are passing more and more clean-energy legislation, and the cost of going carbon-free is plummeting. Places like California are taking the lead, but it seems the rest of the world is likely to follow.

As a milestone for us, Los Angeles just approved a contract for a massive solar and battery energy storage system. Eland Solar and Storage is the largest solar-power system Los Angeles has signed on to, commencing operation in 2023. It's using new technologies such as battery energy storage and advanced energy control systems to optimize its facility performance. It's also the cheapest renewable energy contract to date, at nearly a quarter of LA's first solar deals.

The demand for engineers will be huge, and the industry will need engineers of all disciplines to tackle the emerging challenges across the country. We'll need engineers to innovate, to build, and to operate these entirely new systems. Thousands of miles of new transmission will need to be built, hundreds of solar, wind, and geothermal facilities will need to be developed. A typical utility-scale solar or wind farm can span thousands of acres of land that will need development. These mega projects will need project managers, consultants, designers, environmental reviews, and every engineering task imaginable.

I draw inspiration from the works of Bell Labs. As I'm reading through "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation," by Jon Gertner, I'm learning about the men and women who were behind the most innovative utility service provider in the world at the time. To them there was no such thing as an impossible task; it was just a solution that needed discovering. I have that same optimism for the energy industry. We're just going to have to invest and put the best people up to the task.

*These opinions are my own and does not reflect the views of my employer. 

Paul’s work at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power consists of planning and procuring large scale renewable energy projects to meet LA’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2045. Paul graduated from UCLA with his B.S. in 2015 and obtained his M.S. in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley with a focus on Energy and Climate in 2016. He’s currently obtaining is Masters in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. He is passionate about sustainable infrastructure and is involved with several initiatives with the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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