Recently, Ogden City voted to pursue HB 411, a commitment to carbon-neutral production of electricity for the city in 10 years. I’m encouraged by the vote but even more by the energy and dedication of the youth who lobbied for HB 411. We need to harness their energy to ensure the commitment becomes reality.

The production and distribution of electricity has never been a simple affair and is only getting more complicated. After the Wild West years of the late 1800s, the power companies settled into controlling everything regarding electricity — from generation to distribution.

The U.S. grid system had its first crisis in the 1960s when it bumped into the laws of physics regarding the efficiency limits of heat-driven turbines. Then in the 1970s, federal laws changed to require the grid to accept electricity generated by individuals and other companies. The 21st century saw a third pressure when, the cost of generating via wind and solar – even controlling for subsidies – became considerably lower and is trending lower than any other type of generation. This increased the number of individuals who were power generating and distributing on micro- and mini-grids not controlled by the traditional power company. A recent story in the Standard-Examiner described a community in New Mexico, for example, that may drop the local power company and save money by going net-zero.

A critical issue is peak energy use – approximately 4 to 9 p.m. – when solar and wind generation is weaker, and fossil fuels typically fill the void. Coal was the biggest slice of the generation pie, but natural gas price pressure, due to fracking this century, has left power companies with stranded assets (unwanted plants). Gas turbines output less carbon than coal but are not carbon-free.

Nuclear generates carbon-free electricity but is costly to implement. I’m optimistic about new nuclear technologies although not anytime soon. Meanwhile, increasing cost differentials between generation technologies have pushed Rocky Mountain Power to accelerate closing coal plants and slowing the construction of gas plants.

Essentially electricity must be used as soon as it is generated. Electricity rushes at approximately light speed through the grid from where it is created to where it is used. There is little storage available. What options are there without coal, gas or nuclear? A “smart grid” could partially address this challenge: efficiently moving electricity to where it is needed. Adding electricity storage also plays a role. Fortunately, lithium battery costs are 85% less than they were only six years ago. Iron-flow battery technology also looks promising.

Stored electricity doesn’t have to be in a battery. You can use solar and wind energy to create potential energy. The 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility in Nevada uses the sun to heat molten salt, releasing that stored heat to run turbines. Using the sun to compress air or hydrogen into salt domes is an approach that is being proposed in an area near the just- closed Navajo coal plant. Traditional hydropower uses gravity to generate electricity. A few dams in the U.S. pump the water back up the hill during the day to use again when needed. That is an approach suggested for one of America’s most famous dams: Hoover Dam.

Even with technological advances in sustainability, challenges remain for power companies to be viable. How do you incentivize difficult actions: not using electricity (sometimes called ‘negawatts’); distributing but not necessarily generating electricity; making the grid smart enough that electricity flows where it is needed; and accommodating electricity peak? The answers are not only technical but also economic and political.

I spend a lot of time talking to younger people about their passions and to industry and community leaders about their needs. Bringing those perspectives together is critical for economic and workforce development.

I can tell you this with little qualification – younger people, the people who will run this joint when we older folks are gone – are passionate about sustainability and not just to complain about the problems, but to solve them. That’s why Weber State’s College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology is excited to pursue a new major in energy engineering. Stay tuned

Meanwhile, companies are passionate about hiring younger people to solve their problems. I’ve heard from a number of industry leaders who recognize that no matter what your existing priorities are, if you want to attract young people to work for you, you need to show a commitment to sustainability. The young people who lobbied for HB 411 said as much about the companies they want to work for and the community they want to live in. Technologically, economically and politically, youth will help invent the future of energy.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University.

Twitter: DavidFerro9

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