Daniel Kammen

Renewable Energies: Science and Policy

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Professor Daniel Kammen
Professor of Energy and Society
Professor of Public Policy

Professor of Nuclear Engineering
Director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL)


Ever since humans discovered fire, there has been demand for energy and the resources that provide it. Their various form have included wood, coal, oil, and nuclear energy. Over the years, a host of technologies and industries have been developed to tap these resources and distribute them. But at the same time, our demand for energy has grown and wars have been fought over these resources. One of the most pressing questions these days is what kind of energy policy should we formulate? What kind of alternative sources of energy should we pursue? And how can we best protect the environment at the same time?

Joining us to talk about these issues is Dr. Daniel Kammen who holds several appointments at the University of California. He is Professor of Energy and Society, Professor of Nuclear Engineering, and Professor of Public Policy. Professor Kammen is also director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL).

Below is an edited transcript of the interview. Frank Ling (FL) talks to Daniel Kammen (DK):

FL: Professor Kammen, thanks for joining us today.

DK: Oh, it’s a pleasure.

FL: I understand you have interest in both science and policy. Can you tell us about your involvement in the energy field.

DK: The Energy and Resources Group (ERG) is my initial appointment here on campus and I work through them mainly on energy sustainability questions so we would look at a whole range of issues about how renewable energy can contribute to our overall energy mix. What are the technical barriers? What are the policy options? What are the economics of it? And then through the School of Public Policy, I work sort of more directly on national and international energy policy questions. So for example, I testified last week in front of the House Science Committee on what’s the future of nuclear power which also ties into my third appointment in Nuclear Engineering. So, the goal for my lab is to work on all aspects of energy policy and science from basic labwork. And we do basic labwork on wind, solar systems, all the the way through the economics and policy aspects of these technologies.

FL: And could you give us your views on what energy policies we should be pursuing these days?

DK: Well, I think that we’ve got a lot of good options in front of us and we’re not using a lot of them. The biggest lesson that I’ve seen from the last couple decades of our fossil fuel economy is that we haven’t learned the basic lesson and that is energy diversity is a good thing. We arguably fought the Gulf War in 1991 and the current Iraq and Afghan entanglements because the people in the Middle East don’t like our fossil fuel policies. So, I would say you could more or less tie huge amount of current problems to our over-dependance on Middle East oil. That would mean to me that a more diverse set of energy options made more sense. And then the California Energy Crisis was also one of being too reliant on too few sources, so number one thing is we need to use our fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, wind, biomass, and solar and hydro- and geo-thermal, all very effectively, and we to use them together and not make the market so that it’s biased incredibly strongly one towards the other. Let me give you an example of one of those strong biases we have right now. 95% of all new power plants being considered to be built in American west are all going to be gas-fired. Now, I would have thought that the most basic lesson we learned from the California Energy Crisis was that diversity mattered. Clearly, that lesson did not get passed along. What got passed along was that reliance on oil was a bad thing but we are going to make the same mistakes with gas. So, I am not one of those renewable energy aficionados who think that the whole world should be hydrogen or solar or something else. It’s that we need to have a balanced mix of these. The best way to do that is to improve the market access.

FL: What about Alaska? Should we expand our drilling there or stop it all together.

DK: Well, Alaska in an interesting case. If you look at all of the oil and gas projected to be in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Reserve) and you were make it all available to the economy tomorrow, and that’s not going to happen even if we drill there, we would see that oil and gas hitting the market around 2007. Even as a lump burst into the economy, it’s not going to have more than a 10 or 12% overall effect. To my mind, a 10 % effect on our total supply in seven years is a useless gambit. We don’t need that much. We could certainly increase or decrease our gas supply by more than 10% by buying from a set of countries like Venezuela, like we buy from Southeast Asia today and not have to endanger what is a fragile habitat for essentially no gain.

FL: So there has been growing interest in nanotechnology these days. And some people even believe that it could be our great hope for our energy needs.

DK: Fortunately things are beginning to change. We’ve been documenting in our lab the steady declines in R&D funding for essentially all energy resources over the last couple years and that’s a bad sign. But we are seeing now though is that with the high price of natural gas and the volatility of gas, that photovoltaics are now blossoming in terms of new technologies. It’s not just photovoltaic panels that you see, but now there is a neat group down at Caltech that is developing solar paint that you essentially paint onto a home or roof and you could then use that as a very cheap – low efficiency – but very cheap way to get solar power out of the system. People talking about thin film membranes and flexible modules so that the technological options are increasing dramatically. Wind power has also gone through a huge revolution in the last couple years. Wind turbines now produce power that is, depending on who you ask, at the same cost or cheaper than most of the fossil fuel alternatives. Wind turbines that were in the old days low-tech but well engineered devices are now very high-tech computer controlled systems where the biggest wind turbines now being installed today are now three and four megawatts in size. And when you compare that to the 50 to a hundred or two hundred kilowatts that they used to be, you can now think about some number of these very large turbines having a very large impact and we are seeing that in Europe very strongly. We’re seeing little trickles of it here. But now, Germany and Spain are ahead of the US in wind power installation and Germany and Denmark are ahead of the US in building wind turbines. So, the technological options are there, hydrogen in coming online in a variety of ways, and a new way to gasify biomass is also available. And that’s really exciting because biomass is our most common resource, but if you have to have boilers that deal with solid fuel, that’s taking a slight step backwards whereas if you can gasify the biomass fuel, now you can burn like natural gas and now you’ve got another feedstock that can go into what we already have with new technology, which is turbines.

FL: Let’s talk about other countries. How is the US doing in comparison to say Europe or Japan?

DK: Well, this is a sore point of mine actually because the US has done a huge amount of research over the last several decades on photovoltaics, wind, fuel cells, nuclear power, a whole variety of things. And the US is arguably not the leader anymore in any of these. Talk about bad technology transfer: not taking advantage of the work we have done is fairly tragic. We’re not number 10 but the US certainly trails Germany and Denmark in wind turbine development. We arguably trail Italy and Canada in fuel cells, we arguably follow Germany and Japan in terms of photovoltaic work. So, we’re giving away a lot of technology that we’ve worked hard on. Now the good side, however, is that since US is not being very, shall we say thoughtful in climate change policy, but the European Community and Japan arguably are. Seeing these technologies takeoff in those countries is good for our global situation, but I wish the US would play a little more of a leadership role right now.

FL: So a lot of work has done in developing technologies for developing resources for energy, but equally important is the distribution of the energy. Could you tell us how optimized we are in terms of the power grid?

DK: Good question, we are definitely not optimized at all. California alone, with all those discussion about the bailout of the utilities, all leave out the issue that the grid has been neglected for so many years. And most estimates are the California piece of the grid needs five or six billion dollars to just bring it back up to code, to bring it up to normal operating conditions. And that says nothing about all the neat things we could do if our grid became smart. The technology in laptops, cell phones, an pagers would be enough to couple that onto the grid to allow house, home, and store that generates power to sell it back in. So for example, at my house, we have a 2.4 kilowatt PV array on the roof, a photovoltaic (PV) array on the rooftop. And PG&E will grudgingly will allow us to zero our bill out, to put as much power into the grid as we take out during the year, to bring our utility bill down to more or less zero. But, we can not sell one electron into the grid and if you think about it, that’s bad on a number of basis. California has periodic energy shortages and crisis, so small-scale distributed power generation on my rooftop, at the wind farm on someone in central valley, someone else who has a fuel cell stack they want to plug in, that could be a good resource for the country. In addition, think about the decision I have to make when I decide how to size my photovoltaic system. I’m not going to build a system on my roof any larger than I might need at maximum because I’m not going to recover any more of that revenue from PG&E. Once you’ve installed the inverter, wires, and everything else, adding additional solar panels is cheap, so the more possibilities I would have to sell power back in, the more I’m likely to build an oversized system and put power back in because I know I can make some money off of it. Now, that’s the same decision that I would make to install more photovoltaic capacity would exactly be the same decision as what a strip mall or small business might decide if they want to invest in fuel cell or if they want to buy power from a wind turbine. They are not going to do more than they need because selling power back into the grid is difficult. A smart grid would allow us to make smarter energy choices and right now the utilities are blocking that sort of evolution.

FL: You mentioned a need for diversity, but should nuclear power be a part of this diversity? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

DK: Well, you’re never going to people to agree on this on technical merits and I’m also a Professor of Nuclear Engineering, as you know, so I follow this very closely. Right now, nuclear power provides 20% of the US mix and we have not had any new nuclear power plants built for 20 years. But under the current energy bill in the Senate, there is a very large amount of loan guarantees, about $16, to help restart the nuclear industry. Now, when you ask someone who is pro-nuclear, they say look, nuclear is the cheapest form of energy, it’s carbon-free, we obviously should be building it. And if you ask someone who is anti-nuclear, they’ll say look at Yucca Mountain, look at the risk issues. We don’t see a level-headed debate on the issue. What we see are strongly held ideologies, butting heads, and I think that’s the first thing we need to get over with, we need to find a way to have a sane dialogue about the benefits and risks of nuclear power and not have it just being just ideology of loggerheads.

What you ask me though was what I think we should do about it and so far I’ve avoided the question. I’m actually quite comfortable with our current level of nuclear power production in terms of the hundred and three US nuclear reactors that are working quite well. They are operating very inexpensively in terms of the power coming out of it. So in terms of the power plants themselves, I’m quite enthusiastic. I’m not, however, enthusiastic about the we way we manage the waste. I think the decisions we made about Yucca Mountain are wrong, I think sticking Nevada with it is the wrong way to go, and I think the economics of nuclear power are nowhere near as rosy as we like to make it out because nuclear power enjoys some unique subsidies. Nuclear power enjoys the Price-Anderson subsidy, which basically limits the liability of a nuclear operator in a way that other technologies don’t get. So I would like to see at the national level, an even comparison of technologies and pick winners and loser. What I believe would come out of this choice is not necessary nuclear, fossil fuel, or my favorite renewable of the week, but energy efficiency is our biggest winner. It’s the cheapest form of energy and if we simply use the power we have more efficiently, we could make much better choices about do we want more or less nuclear, how do we want to grow the wind industry, but we don’t do that because energy has become so ideological and not one where we actually analyze.

FL: There has much discussion about moving towards a hydrogen economy, but there was an article in Science that reported the possible dangers or drawbacks of using hydrogen in such large volumes. Do you have any comments on that?

DK: Well, yeah, that’s actually an interesting case because that article appeared in Science by some atmospheric chemists at Caltech. That came out the day I was testifying in D.C. so there was a lot of interest in it and the article got instant notoriety because their claim was essentially was that if you look at how much hydrogen leaks from hydrogen pipes and storage tanks and when you are refueling containers, and you convert the entire global economy of fossil fuels to hydrogen, then the amount of hydrogen liberated could impact the ozone hole fairly dramatically. The result did get a lot of play for that. Well it turns out that — while I love Caltech, I did my postsdoc there — that the authors did something a little bit unfortunate. They are quite good atmospheric chemists but the assumptions they made about hydrogen are sort of bizarre. And they are bizarre to a couple levels. What they assume is that the leakage rates from hydrogen pipes would be 10-20% of the total hydrogen in them and they did this based on a fairly old German study that if actually read it carefully once the paper came out, actually concludes the leakage rates are 0.1%. But maybe overall system handling, 1-2% was a possibility and that leakage rates of 10-20% were possible in old-style pipes that we have seen in, for example, Central Asia. Now that means there is a factor of at least 10 they are right off. And then they assume that this hydrogen economy is going to replace all fossil fuel use essentially right away, which no hydrogen proponent thinks that fuel cells or hydrogen powered vehicles would be able to achieve a market share of 30% even within a couple decades. So you couple these two mistakes together and they are off by a factor of 30 just at the get go. And then on their paper, if this hydrogen economy went and develops, comes to fruition and let’s say half of our energy comes from hydrogen resources, in 2050 then, their results are not significant because by then the ozone hole would have been repaired and so there wouldn’t be an effect.

They have to assume that they get to 100% of the world using hydrogen in twenty years and these sets of errors. So, as I wrote back to a number of people who have asked us about the article, I’m glad to see atmospheric scientists involved in hydrogen work, but it’s clear that their paper got reviewed based on the atmospheric chemistry, not on any of the policy assumptions that really make it go. I think this is a case where the review process, peer review, failed but I’m glad to see more active work in this field.

FL: I guess we are running a little bit out of time today. Are there any last words you’d like to add?

DK: I think the main thing that is interesting right now from my look at the campus right now is that the California Energy Crisis, the tension in the Middle East, and the new set of technologies emerging mean renewable energy is now much more attractive economically in terms of security, in terms of environmental issues than it’s ever been before. And it’s competitive economically. Ten years ago I could not make that claim. l couldn’t say that wind turbine could be competitive today. Now you can do that. Despite all these neat advances, energy is probably the area where we have the least number of graduate programs, the least students emerging, the least intellectual resources to make good decisions. I think it’s a neat growth area for undergraduate and graduate education.

FL: Professor Kammen, thanks for joining us today.

DK: It’s a pleasure.


  1. Yes just as this financial crisis was egged on by the market madness and complicity of the energy / petroleum suppliers….
    Now it appears they keep the prices articially low to curtail renewable, sustainable energy development…
    What to do???

  2. I have been told that you mentioned our technology (bio char production) on a recent telecast. We are certainly pleased and would like to see the piece you did. Can we view it?? Thanks Ted McManus, Biz-Solutions LLC

    • Hi Ted,
      Thanks for the note. I don’t remember an episode that we did on this topic but I have heard quite a bit about it. If you are interested, I would be happy to interview you for the program! -Frank

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