Path to Zero
Path to Zero
1.16 - 5 Energy Trends and Predictions for 2021

To kick off 2021, Tucker Perkins reflects on some memorable moments from the conversations with energy experts on Path to Zero to look ahead to the big clean energy trends over the next year.

Prediction #1: Propane engines will come out as the clean fuel alternative to diesel in trucking

2021 will see more growth of propane in the transportation sector. The growing push for lower-emission trucks and alternatives to diesel is leading breakthroughs for the next generation of propane engines. A research team at Colorado State University and large engine manufacturer Cummins are developing a new, high-efficiency propane engine. CSU Energy Institute Director Dr. Bryan Willson told us on Path to Zero about the efforts to create a more affordable, efficient and lower emission heavy-duty truck engine…

Bryan WilsonDr. Bryan Willson, Executive Director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University

“I think the world is really looking for clean and economical fuels. What we have the potential to do here is to take a less expensive, lower polluting fuel. And if we can raise its performance then I think it is one of the tools in the toolbox to a lower carbon future.”

This trend may take hold first at shipping docks with drayage service –– specialty logistics service carrying freight over short distances. The reason is volume. A recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter Costas Paris wrote an article entitled, “Natural Gas, Propane Are Early Winners in Quest for Clean Ship Fuels” so if both ships and transport equipment, including forklifts, are propane-powered, you’ve got a concentration of users that can be serviced efficiently by a propane supplier.

Watch this idea start to weave itself into conversations about other clean fuels like hydrogen and ammonia.

Trend/Prediction #2:  Clean cooking alternatives will scale up in low income areas

Celebrities like Chef Jose Andres with World Central Kitchen are stepping up efforts to convert kitchens in developing countries from solid fuels –– wood or charcoal –– to clean burning propane. More than three-billion people around the world, mostly women, depend on food cooked over polluting, open fires. 4 million people die from health issues caused by unclean cookstoves each year. In a recent episode of Path to Zero, Economist and Forbes Contributor Tilak Doshi called on more governments to subsidize efforts to help families transition to clean stoves…

Tilak DoshiTilak Doshi, Economist, Forbes Contributor, Senior Research Fellow at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:

“I think that promoting a propane in the third world, in the poor countries among the poor is one of the single most important things that we can do almost overnight immediately. India still subsidizes LPG for the poor, I think that’s an excellent idea. As economists, we don’t believe in subsidies, because they’re generally inefficient, but subsidizing LPG is actually helping the poor.”

This is an energy equity issue, and one that doesn’t just affect other countries. Here in the U.S., low income people pay a larger percentage of their income for energy than anyone. They face a Heat vs. Eat dilemma, and it’s an issue that only gets worse when the projected cost of grid.

Prediction #3: Renewable propane goes prime time

2020 was a big year in the advancement in renewable propane and we expect that trend to continue in 2021, in fact the California market is formulating a game plan to use nothing but renewable propane by the end of the decade.

Renewable propane offers extremely low carbon emissions and is made using renewable resources like vegetable oils and other biomass feedstocks. U-Haul recently started powering its fleet with renewable propane in California and many school districts use it to fuel buses. Joy Alafia with Western Propane Gas Association talked to us about how renewable propane is becoming a sustainable fuel solution in California…

Joy AlafiaJoy Alafia, President/CEO at Western Propane Gas Association:

“Committing to renewable propane is the right thing to do for our planet. The challenge that many in our industry grapple with is the cost. Our industry is not unique in this regard; energy transformations come with a price. I believe in the coming year or two, with larger producers coming online, cost concerns will completely go away. I view my role as getting the word out that renewable propane exists. Many are still unaware of what renewable propane is and how they can use today to displace conventional fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel at a market competitive price relative to those displaced fuel.”

Prediction #4: Local, not federal, efforts will drive the low carbon movement.

Listen to this piece of sound from University of California Santa Barbara Professor and environmental justice expert David Pellow reflected on this in a Path to Zero podcast conversation…

Dr. David Pellow, Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

“I’m reminded of the example of the group, WE ACT, the West Harlem Environmental Action Group, which is based in Harlem, New York, one of the most successful and impactful environmental justice groups anywhere in the country. And they did a great campaign around diesel buses that were idling in various parts of the community. And they came up with a plan to phase those diesel buses out, and much more clean burning fuel was the result.

And to me it’s about transition, and I totally agree that whether you’re an environmentalist, or frankly somebody, and much of the fossil fuel community where it feels like it’s either my way or the highway, it’s one way or the other, it’s kind of these pure categories that are really unrealistic. And I consider myself a radical environmentalist, but I also believe that we need, if we’re going to get to a sustainable future, it’s got to be a transition. So, that idea of a bridge to me makes a hell of a lot of sense.”

I get what he’s saying. But if local initiatives like what Dr. Pellow mentioned really want to pick up steam, they’ll stop the militant “electrify everything” push.

All that’s going to do is start fights and launch thousands of lawsuits across the country by developers, builders, energy companies and even utilities who know the science. The electric grid isn’t clean –– it’s powered by the burning of coal and natural gas for the most part…and that will continue until the middle of the century.

On that note, here’s another quote from a great interview I did with renewable energy expert Mathias Steck…

Mathias Steck, Managing Director, Renewables Advisory Germany, DNV GL – Energy:

“Definitely for gas we see that as a transition fuel. It’s much better still than having coal in our point of view. And I know there’s different views in different countries, but from a German point of view, it is far better than nuclear as well.

You see this shift in shipping, for example, we now run ships on LNG. We can use it as a relatively clean energy generator. In fact, also in combination, because renewables, we still have the problem that it’s quite intermittent. And sometimes there may be no energy when we need it. Right? If you have a fast responding gas generator then nearby that would help.

But you haven’t cut out fossil totally. I think the development will be quite natural. There are so many banks who would not even give money anymore or loans anymore for new coal fired power plant projects. On the other hand, Germany has built a new clean core power plant. So I think the mix will only go to the higher renewable content over time. It is not like a switch. And I think we ourselves say that by 2050, we think the split is about 50/50. There will be like 50% renewables and there will be still 50% conventional.”

Better to work together to match the cleanest, low carbon energy to every possible application –– from equipment to appliances.

Prediction #5: The transition to net-zero carbon will accelerate because of decentralization

Microgrids will be the trend-setter however, not the macro grid. The big grid operators like PG&E in California and even big energy infrastructure projects like the Atlantic Pipeline have shown us that massive utilities or infrastructure projects are too big to NOT fail. Because propane works great in tandem with solar and wind generation, microgrids are going to show in up in more and more places. They’ll be smart and driven by A.I., super-efficient, and very consumer-centric, allowing a lot of energy choice and control.

Here’s a great takeaway from a conversation I had with Michael Burr, founder of the Microgrid Institute. You haven’t heard it yet, because it’s a Season 2 show, but I thought you’d like a preview of episodes to come!

Michael Burr, Executive Director, Microgrid Institute:

“Microgrids are changing the game. I want to emphasize, it’s not that it’s displacing the utility industry, by no means is it doing that. It’s able to provide service to customers in a way that they haven’t been able to get previously.

The San Pasqual band in Southern California in San Diego County, we’re working on a microgrid with them that’s going to be using primarily solar. That’s being mounted on solar canopies over a pretty sizeable parking lot. They’re combining that in a system that has lithium-iron phosphate batteries and they use propane as essentially a standby generation source.

In some circumstances, if there’s a long duration power outage caused by one of the public safety power shutoffs that they’ve had have been experiencing in that part of the state. If it’s over a few days or a couple of days, the batteries are going to get drained. In order to keep their vital systems going at their tribal administration campus, there’s propane available to provide power at nighttime and to recharge those batteries if need be so that they can continue to operate.”

I’ve read some other really fun and funky predictions for the year ahead, including:

  1. Guilt-free flying – low carbon or no carbon jet aircraft will make it to market in the year ahead
  2. Revolutionary molten salt nuclear fusion design will catapult humanity into energy abundance
  3. Sun shines on silver, which sizzles on solar panels. That demand will push silver’s price to $50/oz vs. it’s current $25/oz.
  4. A breakthrough replacement for “white oil” –– lithium for batteries –– will come in the form of giant, industrial scale “flow batteries” or some other form that gets the world out of the human- and environmentally-destructive lithium mining business.
  5. I read one predictions piece citing Nostradamus. It said a comet or asteroid will hit the earth in 2021. And you know what, NASA spotted an asteroid called 2009-JF1 and says Nostradamus may have been on to something, but it might not happen until May of 2022.

Well those are sort of fun to think about? Maybe not that last one so much!

No matter what the year ahead has in store for us, I hope the conversations we’ve had this past season on our podcast have shed light on the many good things in front of us. Happy 2021 to you all, and as always, thank you so much for taking this journey with me as we travel the Path to Zero.