Dr. Scott Tinker was the keynote speaker at the Basin Electric 2020 Annual Meeting. Tinker is the director of the 250-person Bureau of Economic Geology, the state geologist of Texas, a professor holding the Allday Endowed Chair in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-producer of the award-winning energy documentary film Switch. He works to bring industry, government, academia, and nongovernmental organizations together to address major societal challenges in energy, the environment, and the economy.
Tinker's message focused on the societal changes that are impacting the energy industry. He started off with the big picture, showing that several of the world's biggest issues relate to poverty, and that energy (or lack of it) is an important component of poverty.
"Looking at a map of the world of electricity, if you look where the lights are on, it's the wealthy areas. We show a very strong correlation that the more electricity you have, the wealthier you tend to be. The average person in Ethiopia or Kenya consumes less electricity than my refrigerator. My fridge consumes nine time more electricity than the average Ethiopian and three times more that the average Kenyan, and that's poverty," he said.
Tinker sees the overlap between energy, the economy, and the environment as critically important, and calls it the radical middle. "Different groups must work hard together to address and solve major issues in the radical middle, such as energy poverty and climate change. No solution is perfect, and compromise is required," he said.
He went on to talk about global production and consumption. "Half the world's population lives in southeast Asia and they get half their energy from coal. That's more than the rest of the world combined, times three," Tinker said. Tinker said highly-populated India and China are still building coal power plants while the United States is eliminating them, and more than half the world's emissions now come from Asia.
"The U.S. consumes more than we produce, while China and southeast Asia produce more than they consume. Southeast Asia gets half of its energy from coal. Is that clean? China is still building coal power plants. They have 120 gigawatts of coal under construction today," Tinker said. "So what's the strategy with zero emissions for governments, companies, and states? Buying credits so you can continue to emit? There's only so many credits to go around, and more importantly there is only one atmosphere. Buying credits moves emissions, it doesn't really reduce them much."
He noted that in 1985, Asia used three times more coal than gas. Today, it uses five times more coal that gas, but consumption of both has gone up. There's ten times more coal being used in Asia today than back in 1985.
"The U.S. is just the opposite: five times coal to gas back in 1985 and now less than one - 0.9 coal to gas. That's thanks to a cheap shale gas. There's eight times the amount of natural gas in the power sector today. If the world could do what the United States has done, replacing coal with gas, those carbon dioxide emissions would come way down," Tinker said. "That's actually one of the few scalable strategies. Nonetheless, people seem to hate natural gas."
He added that, "The reality is most people don't know how electricity is made. They think renewables are 'good' and 'clean' and fossil fuels are 'bad' and 'dirty.' That's just not critical thinking. All forms of energy have environmental impacts; they're just different. You have to mine the materials and manufacture turbines, panels, and batteries, and then they end up in a landfills," Tinker said.
He said Basin Electric is wise to diversify its resource portfolio, including a variety of fuel streams that provide optionality, while continuing to keep coal in the mix.