New Energy Economy: Promise or Possibility?

Barack Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to create a new energy economy. This could translate into support for the sustainability industry, encouraging the development of solar power, electric cars, and the like.

The Washington Business Journal, for one, argues that if the new president makes good on campaign promises to put caps on emissions, a new burden may be put on utilities and other industries.

What’s the outlook?

Douglas Gotham
Director, State Utility Forecasting Group
at the Energy Center at Discovery Park
Purdue University

Answer: Implementing a new energy economy will be challenging but doable.

Meeting the challenges of a new energy economy is not that different from what utilities have always faced. This time, it’s on a larger scale. Yes, it will be a burden for electric utilities to handle the extra load of hybrid cars, for example, whose batteries would access electric power as they recharge. But utilities face similar challenges every time a new device comes out that uses electricity, from air conditioners and microwave ovens in the past to more recently personal computers and plasma televisions. Utilities had to adjust then, and they can again, even on a larger scale.

Utilities will have to build generation facilities, distribution substations, and transmission lines to meet the demand. The magnitude of the project may be a bigger than what they normally see, and the larger demand may prompt some restructuring of prices based on time-of-day access, for example. Also, they’ll have to address safety issues for line personnel in a power outage, who will have to make sure someone’s car isn’t feeding power back onto the line when it should be de-energized. But all that can be engineered around with relatively simple devices.

Overall, the utilities are used to dealing with rapid changes in demand, so they will adjust to any increases that may come as new technologies are implemented that may need electricity.

The challenge of reducing carbon emissions is also similar to challenges that utilities have faced before. Utilities have already been required to reduce emissions of substances that are components of acid rain and smog. Again, the issue is a matter of scale.

New energy will be fueled by a variety of sources, not just one. I believe we’ll need wind, solar, and nuclear power and clean coal. We’ll also need to use energy more efficiently. While that will require change and effort, it’s doable.

Robert “Cole” Skelton
Junior, mechanical engineering; minor, electrical engineering
Vice president, Purdue Solar Racing
Purdue University

Answer: The outlook for implementing sustainable energies is quite positive.

It’s good that we are putting a plan into action to convert our country’s power usage from fossil-fuel sources to sustainable energies, such as solar, wind, and nuclear power. Once we begin and people see that the process can work, that it’s not just an idea, a snowball effect will start, and more people will convert to renewable resources.

The conversion won’t be completely actualized in the next four to eight years, so the president who follows Barack Obama will need to continue that path. 

Switching to renewable energy will put more burden on our current infrastructure, which currently is very, very fragile, as we’ve seen with brownouts and blackouts stemming from bottlenecks on the electrical grid. The grid will need to be made more robust. Another problem facing renewable energy is storage capacity. With sustainable energy, we have to make more than we use and store it somewhere for the times the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

I’ve seen both sides of the issue, working at the BP refinery in Whiting last summer and serving as vice president of Purdue Solar Racing. BP and others are working to bring emissions down. The technology gets better every year; it’s an evolving process. I’ve also seen the potential for solar power—the Purdue car took top honors for most-efficient vehicle in the solar category at last year’s Shell Eco-Marathon, running the equivalent of 2,861 miles per gallon. Enough sun shines on the U.S. every day to provide four times the entire country’s annual energy consumption; if we could capture a fraction of that and store it, solar power could be viable.

I think we need to go in both directions at the same time—creating more solar and wind power, then when we see how that is affecting the electrical grid, improve on it. We need to know how the system reacts for a longer period of time. New energies are sustainable if the electrical infrastructure is there.