Sunday, October 22, 2006

Global Warming -- Not Targets, but Proposals for Action

October 22, 2006

Three Fronts in the Struggle for Climate Protection

Al Gore is right that global warming is a large and genuine threat, and Gregg Easterbrook in the September Atlantic Monthly is right that protecting the world’s climate from greenhouse changes can be less expensive and arduous than many now expect. Both are right that serious national-level work on the problem is just not taking place in the United States. The Bush-Cheney administration’s retrograde and ostrich-like denial is shackling American ingenuity and capacities. Radiating from our national government, unjustified defeatism is spreading about a danger which is indeed major, but which can be mastered.

But in the autumn of 2006, the fight against global warming has three fronts where gains can be made that match the depth and breadth of the problem.

The most visible is transportation and petroleum. The solution is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), of which dozens of prototypes are working now. Regular hybrid cars already on American roads by the thousands show that an automobile can perform just fine while being driven by electricity from a rechargeable battery. All the battery’s power in such present hybrids comes from an on-board gasoline engine. But, as models advance, that engine can become smaller and the batteries can become bigger, allowing the car to get most of its current from a wall plug in the garage at night. Then it is a “plug-in hybrid.”

Electricity as auto fuel costs the equivalent of $1 per gallon of gas or less. No new generating capacity needs to be built to supply it, since it draws from existing power plants that are now half-idle from midnight to six in the morning.

Unlike a straight electric car, the plug-in hybrid does not have a limited daily driving range, because the small engine comes on automatically if the battery runs low. The small engine can burn bio-fuel, and its back-up function could also be performed by a hydrogen fuel cell, or an additional quick-charge battery.

Research and improvement will certainly continue, but to replace fossil petroleum in local transportation the key technical questions have been answered and the state of the art in batteries is more than adequate to get started on mass production. The step now awaited is for a major manufacturer, or several, to make plug-in hybrids available on the national market. Meantime, the effervescing is well worth consulting.

The market would likely switch by itself to PHEVs over thirty coming years. But to realize the greenhouse benefits of the change and to cut immediately our lethal dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we should put some muscle of social purpose and governmental action behind the switch to plug-ins, and get it done much sooner. Petroleum/transportation accounts for a third or better of our carbon emissions. That makes accelerating the spread of plug-in electric hybrids a major front in the war against global warming.

But where does the electricity come from? Half of U.S. electricity is now generated from coal, and as the price of natural gas rises, at least 150 new coal generation plants are on the drawing boards. Coal is by far the worst fuel for greenhouse emissions.

Therefore, another battlefront, and the most immediate one, in the war to save the climate is ending the use of coal to generate electricity. Today’s most urgent operational imperative is that no new coal-burning electric generation be built in the United States. Each new plant will emit a staggering amount of carbon dioxide over a forty-year life, and it is incredible that new ones would be built in America today. Not CAFÉ standards, nor even generalized carbon reduction targets, such as California’s commendable new cap, are the real cutting edge of saving the climate right now. The hot spot in the war should be a pitched battle, a huge one if necessary, to stop the construction of new coal power plants anywhere in the United States. With our own hands clean on this, we can look seriously at coal reliance in China, India and elsewhere.

Vested coal defenders are talking up two new processes, pre-combustion gasification of coal, and removing coal’s carbon dioxide and sequestering it underground, rather than releasing it to the atmosphere. In the long term climate change framework, both proposals are mainly temporizing sophistries, best disregarded. Coal should go.

That does leave the question, “Where will non-greenhouse electricity come from?” There are basically three answers:

1) Energy efficiency, or getting more useful work from existing power sources. When a wasted watt-hour is eliminated, it is as good as buying a new watt-hour, and many engineers, led by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, believe that a quarter, or even a good deal more, of our present power usage is waste that can be cut. Cutting energy waste is often not free, as when we buy an $8 screw-in fluorescent lightbulb, but it is usually a bargain, sometimes with a remarkably short pay-back time.

2) Photovoltaic (PV) panels, and wind turbines, often grouped as “renewables.” By comparison with an old-style or a nuclear power station, the output of PV and wind comes in a trickle. For both, the apparatus is expensive, although the running costs are virtually free. Of course, when the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing, PV and wind do not produce power. That highlights a particular characteristic of electricity among the forms of energy: it is miraculously clean, versatile, and easy to transport, but difficult and costly to store, even for a few hours. Contrary to the public’s impression, hydrogen is not an energy source, but rather is a storage medium for electricity; as such, it may come to play a significant role in the needed advance of renewables.

3) Nuclear power is capital intensive and slow to build, although ultimately cheap and plentiful, as in France. It indubitably presents real dangers, especially for used fuel disposal. These dangers are difficult in the U.S., and much more difficult if nuclear power were to be used wholesale worldwide. Are these dangers convertible into technical and political challenges which can be successfully met? Probably yes, at least enough for nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gas at all, to make a significant and much needed contribution to climate protection. The best reference is an excellent 2003 study from MIT available free at

Within the debate on electricity supply, there is another important dividing line. From the days of Edison, our familiar existing power system has relied on big power plants, often remote and only quasi-visible to the public. Each plant transmits large quantities of power to the grid which distributes it to tens of thousands of customers. Increased reliance on nuclear power will perpetuate this heavily centralized pattern. Advocates of efficiency and renewable power foresee a much more dispersed and localized pattern of electricity production. Transmission and distribution costs would fall, and grid failures would not paralyze whole regions. Such advocates also contend that with responsibility dispersed and more local self-sufficiency built-in, such a “soft” energy system would be more complementary with democracy.

So after coal-based power is decisively and vigorously rejected for its extreme greenhouse damage, there remain big energy policy issues on this front of the climate protection struggle. Unavoidably, substantial nuclear power will be needed to supply the concentrated metropolitan regions where more and more Americans are living. At the same time, plenty of running room should be left for efficiency and renewables to help fill the inescapable national need for energy, which we will be using more and more in the form of electricity. The plug-in hybrid, of course, which shifts away from gasoline to electricity, is an important part of that trend.

The third front in society’s battle to defeat global warming is to construct a public policy framework supporting and speeding up the investors and engineers who will rebuild our energy systems away from coal, oil and natural gas. Society needs to give the market economy a generalized encouragement, the stronger the better, to turn away from fossil carbon fuels, and an incentive to use non-greenhouse energy alternatives. Any economist will testify that the classic and simplest such measure is a carbon tax. Such a tax is a functional equivalent of the much-discussed “cap and trade” policies, but is far more efficient. Although politicians understandably take fright at the word itself, a carbon tax makes exactly the differentiation that is needed between energy sources that are harmful and those that should be encouraged. Its initial level can be set judiciously, high enough to dissuade investors from putting money into coal fired power stations, and low enough to minimize disturbance of the economy. The administration of a carbon tax would be simple and easy because it would be levied only on the two hundred or so fossil energy producing or importing companies, such as Peabody Coal or Exxon-Mobil. They in turn will pass along its cost to the millions of final consumers.

The carbon tax’s revenues can allow existing taxes to be reduced (preserving revenue neutrality for the tax-averse), or they can fund other steps against global warming, such as research, or subsidies to speed the transition to carbon-free electric power and plug-in hybrids. In fact, since greenhouse emissions from anywhere on the globe damage equally all parts of the world, including the U.S., carbon tax revenues from an industrialized country like us could be partially spent very efficiently for our own protection to subsidize alternatives to fossil fuels in the rapidly industrializing Third World, notably China and India.

California has just now taken a huge step forward by setting carbon reduction targets. Let’s hope that this will have the leadership effect for the United States as a whole which California has exercised on air quality. But a target in itself does not bring about change. It must be actualized through policies and physical changes. Those are the real fronts in the war. Now it is time to give hard thought, both strategic and tactical, to today’s three battlefronts, and to move into action as soon as possible to stop new coal generating plants, to bring in plug-in hybrid vehicles, and to legislate a carbon tax.

“American Driving Patterns” and “Using Off-peak Power” graphs from Electric Power Research Institite, Palo Alto, California: EPRI Journal, Fall 2005. “Driving the Solution, the Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle,” by Luci Sanna