Could renewable energy tech eliminate utilities?

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, January 15, 2016

At the One Nation: Energy forum sponsored by Des Moines Register and the USA TODAY Network, audience members found out more about America’s energy production and concumption Rodney White/The Register

Young Iowans could some day drop their power companies like they left behind telephone land lines and cable TV companies, said a panelist at The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network forum Thursday looking at next-generation energy.

Or, they may find themselves paying as much in sales tax for gas guzzlers as they pay for the cars themselves, said George Crabtree, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill.

Crabtree said car buyers in some Scandinavian countries already pay carbon pollution penalties that equal the cost of the car. And evolving renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind could one day mean consumers no longer need utilities to provide them electricity, allowing consumers to drop them.

“There was a time when our long-distance telephone choices consisted of black or white” before disruptive cell phone technology, said Crabtree, who answered questions along with panelists Robert Brown, Jeff Navin and Heather Zichal about climate change and energy.

Here are a few of the wide-ranging issues panelists discussed at a forum in downtown Des Moines. The event kicked off USA TODAY Network’s One Nation series looking at issues that will shape the presidential election.

China is ‘highly motivated’ to cut greenhouse gases

Zichal, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, said she recently visited China and met with some business leaders. “They know the way they’re currently doing business is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable from a health perspective. It’s not sustainable from an economic perspective and it’s not sustainable from an environmental perspective,” said Zichal, a former adviser to President Barack Obama.

“The entire business community is on board” to cut greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to global warming. And the government is behind them, she said. “You don’t see businesses and government out there saying, ‘We’re behind new regulations.’ ”

Cara Anthony and Mackenzie Warren host One Nation:

Lack of electricity hurts economies, education, health

About 1.3 billion people globally have no electricity, said Navin, a partner at Boundary Stone Partners, a Washington business providing investment advice to energy companies. “We really take for granted that the light comes on when we flip the switch,” he said.

“If you don’t have refrigeration, food goes bad pretty quickly,” Navin said. “People spend a lot of time gathering food because they can’t store it.”

It also affects education and health care. “Just about all modern medicine and health care requires some sort of electricity,” Navin said.

“There are villages in Africa where women and children spend all of their days gathering firewood” to cook food, he said. “If they’re gathering firewood, they’re not going to school.”

And without access to computer technology and the Internet, “they’re not accessing knowledge and information,” he said.

The Des Moines Register and USA Today Network hosted a forum on energy issues to help inform and entertain voters Rodney White/The Register

Making cement, pavement greener

Brown, director of the Iowa State University Bioeconomy Institute, said researchers are developing “bio-asphalt” and “bio-cement” made from biomass like plants and trees.

The bio-asphalt, blended along with traditional asphalt, is greener and could begin to replace asphalt made from crude oil, he said.

And biocement can be sprayed on levee walls to better keep out flood water. “We’re working on this biocement as a way to stabilize these levees,” Brown said, and to handle extreme weather events that scientists say are caused by climate change.

One Nation Energy forum sponsored by the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network mixed beer, bands and learning to raise awareness on important national issues Rodney White/The Register