What Did You Miss at the Savannah International Clean Energy Conference?

The agenda for the Savannah International Clean Energy Conference was diverse and aggressive – Sunday reception with Governor Deal and Senator Isakson, Monday: 7am – 9pm + Tuesday: 7am – 6pm. To summarize the event and 11 pages of notes, we’ve come up with a three-part digest of issues…


You can find a copy of the conference agenda here. You’ll notice there are some keynote addresses to set the stage for a series of complimentary panel discussions. We’re typically not fans of panel discussions though most of these became discussions among the panel members which moved the discussion along faster and revealed more information than a moderator could have extracted.

Tom Cain of Greener Capital presented the opening keynote in the place of Charles McDermott. Cain offered a collection of great points; among them were the following:

  1. The return on money invested in “cleantech” hasn’t been outstanding – globally there have been 27 exits in the last 10 years at 2.1 x money, despite billions of dollars invested.
  2. Among the four “ignored facts” that venture capitalists (VCs) are figuring out: energy, food and water are one – they are inextricably linked although water is local, energy is regional and food is global.
  3. All decisions are first political and then economic: there is no free market for energy, food and water. That’s why we see many different prices for water in one basin. Agriculture, power generation and citizen rates can vary 200x for the same water.

Dennis McGinn, a Retired Vice Admiral and President of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), spoke after Mr. Cain. VADM McGinn noted America currently pays $1B/day for imported oil. That could be used for infrastructure, health care, education, etc. rather than enriching other nations. He also advocated for a true cost of energy – it should include the costs of its delivery and the costs of its consumption. For example, oil requires diplomatic support, foreign aid, military support, etc. and yields greenhouse gases when consumed.

John Sommerhalder, the next speaker, is the Chairman and President of AGL Resources in Atlanta. He offered some interesting notes on the development of natural gas resources in North America:

  1. Natural gas currently supplies about 25% of US energy needs.
  2. 40% of natural gas is now coming from shale.
  3. 10,000 foot laterals for fracking are now possible from one well head – this means one well with laterals can now do the work of approximately 40 vertical wells. That’s why the count of drilling rigs is about one third yet the production has remained constant.
  4. There was a 30% increase in natural gas production from 2008-2012.
  5. The carbon footprint of natural gas is approximately 40% less than coal and 30% less than petroleum. It also offers approximately 90% less of NOx, SOx, mercury and other compounds of concern.

Somerhalder also raised concern that the US not bet exclusively on natural gas. Since 1995, approximately 90% of the power plants constructed are powered by natural gas. He advocated for keeping energy prices stable by maintaining diversity in energy sources and investing in infrastructure to account for more than expected peak loads so distribution isn’t the limiting factor.

In the “Cleantech as Economic Driver” panel discussion, Jamie Vollbracht of the Carbon Trust noted that we miss opportunities for┬áinnovation, development and collaboration when we’re too focused on a limited business model. For example, a steam engine manufacturer sees itself as making steam engines (too limited) rather than making tools for transportation, shipping, handling freight, infrastructure, etc. (unlimited).

The “Cleantech Energy Mix Part 1: Nuclear” panel discussion included discussion about modular nuclear reactors from NuScale Power as an emerging solution to the huge expense of nuclear power plants. Rather than making a huge investment to build a plant with one or two reactors, small modular reactors (SMRs) will allow a power company to bring a smaller reactor online and use the profits to finance the addition of other reactors. In addition to significantly reducing the upfront costs of nuclear power, it may also make our power grid more stable because one of the smaller reactors can always be offline (in rotation) for refueling without having to shut down the entire facility.

Peter Knollmeyer, VP of Operations at Fluor, noted that the US federal government promised to handle nuclear waste in the Atomic Energy Act to encourage the development of nuclear power. A number of companies are suing the Department of Energy for a storage solution – especially since Harry Reid stopped storage at the Yucca Mountain facility. Political and psychological reasons have stopped storage at Yucca Mountain – not technical reasons.

Knollmeyer also noted the costs for disposal of spent nuclear fuel comes from the Nuclear Waste Fund. A portion of the money raised from selling electricity generated by nuclear power goes into the fund to pay for infrastructure and other expenses rather than leaving the costs to the American tax payer. There’s currently about $25B sitting idle in that fund.

When asked about the water consumption of nuclear plants, James Little, SVP of Nuclear Energy Programs at URS Power Group, noted that the next generation of nuclear plants will be high-temperature facilities cooled by gas rather than water. In this case, design is addressing the challenges created by governance of water supply.

In the “Clean Energy Mix Part 2: Natural Gas” panel discussion, Ivan Urlaub, Executive Director of the NC Sustainable Energy Association, noted that diversity in generation should be figured systematically rather than building a power generation facility that uses fuel selected by the cost of the fuel when the facility was planned and financed. That comment underscored a recurring theme in the conference: A lack of any coherent US energy policy keeps investors and planners guessing rather than working together to build a complimentary collection of generation sources.

In the “Clean Energy Mix Part 5: Grid-Level Storage” panel discussion, a collection of interesting emerging technologies were discussed. Tom Cain set the stage with his comment, “If you can figure out how to store electricity, you don’t need oil.”

The SustainX method of storing energy in low-pressure compressed gas was one of the methods discussed. Thomas Zarrella, President and CEO of SustainX, noted that storage is scalable so it doesn’t have the same (up-front) capital|financing costs as new transmission lines and other infrastructure. Storage makes all generation forms more efficient because they can operate at their best levels of efficiency rather than having to be adjusted for peak loads. He also noted that storage should be part of the national energy policy in the United States.

Since we’ve crossed the thousand-word threshold without getting to the end of the first day, we’ll break this summary up into a few posts. We still have solar, carbon tax and many other interesting topics to include. We’ll follow-up tomorrow with additional notes and then publish a collection of take-away points for your review and comment. Thanks!

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3 Responses to What Did You Miss at the Savannah International Clean Energy Conference?

  1. Pingback: Savannah International Clean Energy Conference: Renewables, Efficiency & Planning | Ryan Taylor Architects LLC

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