To Dag Nummedal, clean fossil technology is not just about energy. It's about economics.
"Imagine a world," he says, "where we essentially ‘manufacture’ energy rather than harvest it, and an economy built around intellectual and industrial creativity.
“The change to clean, renewable energy will create the biggest global economic boom we have ever seen."
So … do we have what it takes? Is society malleable enough to handle the changes, costs, sacrifices needed to harness this economic and geologic juggernaut?
Here Nummedal, an AAPG member and Braunstein Award winner, thinks it's the wrong question.
"It is not a matter of sacrifices – quite the contrary,” he said. “Since when has development of new technology been associated with sacrifices?
“The original industrial revolution, when we started using coal to build our manufacturing industry 250 years ago, led to massive economic progress,” he continued. “The shift from the use of coal to oil by the British fleet in World War I (and the rest of the world shortly thereafter) created another major boost to the economy.
“Why will the shift to renewable energy be any different?”
A Change is Gonna Come?
That’s a question that will fuel Nummedal at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver when he presents the paper “Clean Fossil and Renewable Energy – The Future is Closer Than You Think.”
He says the opportunities and obstacles regarding energy and the future are as exciting as they've ever been.
"Technology is changing incredibly fast," he said.
As an example he talks about the solar PV industry.
"The new technologies, for example, of thin films and organic materials are making totally new forms of photovoltaic installations possible,” he said.
“It is not just about silicon cells any more."
As for geothermal energy, he says the landscape is even more exciting.
"We see for the first time a push to develop deep geothermal heat in oil and gas wells in the form of enhanced geothermal systems,” he said, “and not just the utilization of traditional forms such as hydrothermal springs or shallow subsurface geothermal heat pumps."
Nummedal believes if scientists can get enhanced geothermal systems (also called hot dry rocks) to work economically, they will gain access to the largest energy resource on earth (after incident sunlight).
How big is this?
Nummedal says the global geothermal heat resource far exceeds the global resource in coal (let alone oil and gas).
Pretty heady stuff.
So how close are we to this?
Nummedal, who is director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute, won't or can't say.
"I will not put a very precise number on this,” he said. And to be fair, nobody else is, either.
"It is important to know, however, that most of those states that have imposed renewable portfolio standards (typically 20 percent renewables by 2020 or thereabouts) are now well along the track to beat those targets," he said.
“Once we as a nation put a price on carbon emissions,” he said, “and the market forces start factoring those costs in their allocation of resources, the growth of investments in renewable energy will accelerate very fast."
There are obstacles, he admits – but there always are.
"Everything we do in society is subsidized in one form or another – either directly or with indirect government assistance and private/public partnerships,” he said. “Changing politics shifts the balance of these subsidies.”
There is a great variable though, one we have always dealt with.
“There is also the matter of the ‘externalities,’ as economists call them, which are the communal costs of different forms of energy use that are not charged directly to the individual providers or consumers of energy."
When it comes to energy derived from geothermal, the equations are still being formulated.
"We don’t quite know yet exactly what all the externalities of geothermal heat development will cost, but there is every reason to think that they will be much lower than the externalities associated with the burning of coal – which of course is the biggest competitor for geothermal energy."
So why is geothermal the next thing people talk about after coal?
Nummedal said the answer is part fact, part fiction.
First, the misconceptions.
"The largest one probably is that we have had geothermal power production around for 50 years or more,” he said. “If it is so great, why hasn’t it grown in response to the market economic drivers yet? The most direct answer to that is that compared to a coal-based power industry that until now has not had to cover the cost of its externalities (climate change), geothermal was only cost competitive in localized areas (The Geysers, Calif.), Iceland and Philippines. That situation is now changing in a massive way."
But the biggest change may come to the way we actually see and feel the energy we use.
Once we as a nation put a price on carbon emissions and the market forces start factoring those costs in their allocation of resources, the growth of investments in renewable energy will accelerate very fast. And since the automobile wreaked havoc on the horse and buggy industry, an increase in renewable energy and clean fossil will surely have an effect on the petroleum industry – a fact Nummedal is aware, but about which he is not really concerned.
Nummedal says the energy producers with the greatest capacity to innovate (by their own R&D or acquisition) will be in the best position to move forward.
"Then again, that is the way it has always been, isn’t it?” he said. “Energy producers will always remain the winners.
"We are not going to run an advanced industrial society on wood chips and cattle dung.”