Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Action on Climate Change as Obama comes into Office

January 13, 2009

Climate Change Policy as a New Administration Takes Office

What are the main immediate action points to protect the climate from greenhouse warming? This is a central question as the Obama team readies itself to replace the Bush/Cheney administration after eight years of ignorant and irresponsible stonewalling against a climate response.

The first need is to understand the scale and proportion of this issue relative to the many other concerns pressing in on the new president. Man-made climate change is an epochal mega-threat with the potential to transform human history in a devastatingly negative direction. It is a world historical imperative, at a level far above this decade’s politics and economics of the United States or any other country, to end the emission of man-made carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as soon as that can possibly be done. Since using energy from fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide, and at the same time this energy is a key foundation stone of modern civilization, changing away from fossil energy is often seen as a politically and socially wrenching matter, which it could indeed become, especially if it is mishandled. But making the change at the national and world levels remains an imperative, as it was imperative at the personal level to stop smoking when the health effects of smoking became understood. Whether or not decarbonizing of energy can be achieved will depend in part on keeping the costs of the change, both economic and political, as low as possible. Getting the pace of the effort right will also be important -- further on, we’ll take up what “as soon as possible” means in this context.

Secondly, in addition to the large and remarkable ongoing world of scientific knowledge and study that informs us about the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its effects[1], there is also an entirely legitimate and significant world of historical, philosophical and cultural discourse[2] that explains how we got into our unprecedented situation and where it can lead. All of the thinking and judging in this latter world, while often true and important, should not distract or detain us from moving against carbon emissions through technology and public policy, “as fast as possible.” Seeing the climate crisis as an opportunity to escalate and win long cultural struggles, and disdaining “technological fixes” for a problem caused by technology, will simply allow climate catastrophe to take place, if the search for social enlightenment and reform delays taking the necessary engineering steps to cut carbon emissions. The focus must be kept not diffuse and aspirational, but sharply, even narrowly, on understanding what needs to be done to stop and reverse global warming, and on getting that done. The global warming game is not over; there is still time for effective mitigating action, but it now must be swift and decisive. President-elect Obama’s intention to stimulate the economy through large scale infrastructure investments creates an historic opportunity, which can and should be firmly harnessed to fight climate change.[3]

Former Vice President Al Gore is often portrayed as extreme in his calls for low final atmospheric carbon levels (350 ppm, less than the present level), and for his urgency (decarbonization of U.S. electricity production in ten years) but that is mistaken; his views are solid, correct and doable on both scores.

Most greenhouse climate change is caused by the emission into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide which is excess to the balanced natural circulation of carbon among the land, oceans and atmosphere. In practice, this means the carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and from large-scale deforestation. Such “excess” CO2 emissions are now about twenty nine billion tons per year globally (about six billion tons from the United States), and are still growing.[4] In practice in the United States, eighty per cent or more of our energy for electricity, transportation, industry and heating, that is to say for modern life, comes from greenhouse fossil fuels.

This must now be ended. Substitute sources of energy, which are ready and available at reasonable cost, must replace coal, oil and natural gas, most urgently the first two, the heavier emitters of CO2.

There are three main domains for change and action in bringing non-fossil energy into use. First, electric energy will replace gasoline and diesel fuel in cars and trucks. This is what happens in the plug-in hybrid automobile and its all-electric cousin. The entry and success of such vehicles in the market will be a huge step forward in eliminating fossil emissions (and in achieving national energy independence). Plug-ins, such as the Chevrolet Volt, and full electric vehicles could well drive out gasoline internal combustion engines virtually entirely from the new production array within five years and approach full fleet replacement in about fifteen years, certainly by 2030. It will be valuable to use strategically applied policy support in the form of extra fees or carbon taxes that will hit fossil gas and diesel as disincentives, or subsidies which will act as incentives for the initial plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Electric driving will advance dramatically in the market when buyers realize that the electricity equivalent to a gallon of gas is domestically produced, goes into a car silently at night or while parked at work, and costs less than a dollar, compared to the recent, and likely future, gas price of $3.50 a gallon.[5]

Secondly, eliminating CO2 emissions from plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles depends on making electricity production fossil free. Half of electricity is now coal-fueled in the United States[6], and about 15% is from natural gas. The main potential non-fossil substitutes are nuclear power and two principal renewables: wind and solar. Solar power comes either from photovoltaic panels that convert light directly, or from solar thermal units, mirror arrays which use the sun’s heat to raise the temperature of a fluid and then produce power through a standard turbine.

Nuclear reactors have advanced technically in their output, and existing ones supply about 20% of U.S. power, but there have now been major technical gains in both wind and solar power such that it is now considered possible at reasonable cost levels for them to replace coal and even natural gas generation without building further nuclear plants. A Department of Energy study indicates that the U.S. national electric system could absorb up to 20% of its power from wind without disrupting overall supply[7], despite wind power’s intermittency, which can be significantly compensated by linking geographically dispersed wind farms. A Scientific American article of January 2008 makes the case that virtually all U.S. power could be generated by solar thermal arrays in the hot southwestern deserts of the country.[8] Electricity is notoriously costly to store, but new solar thermal generators will store the sun-heated fluid that turns their turbines, so that they supply power at night as well as when the sun is shining.

Thirdly, the remaining great project for immediate implementation is building an “intelligent” high-capacity power transmission and distribution grid at the national level. Such a highly computerized grid will match ever-fluctuating demand across the country, minute by minute, with a multiplicity of nearby or remote generating sources, also fluctuating. The intelligent grid will be important for the integration of plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and will also help along energy conservation in a major way, for example, by indicating to programmed consuming devices, such as an efficient computerized refrigerator, what is the lowest cost moment in the day or night for them to take their power. Experts have come to believe that at present, shortage of transmission capacity for renewable power is the critical bottleneck for renewable expansion.[9]

The relationship between the three major areas of energy reform are interesting and important. Obviously, switching transportation from petroleum to electricity as its main “fuel,” will create a very large new demand for electric power. But costly power generating capacity, that is to say, a power plant, is not built for increases in demand, but only for increases in peak demand—the amount of demand that has to be met at one moment, the moment of highest consumption in a daily, monthly or annual cycle. Specifically, large new power demand for automobiles will, in principle, be met mostly at night, that is to say in the lowest part of the daily demand cycle. At such hours, the present generating system has plenty of spare capacity. Therefore, it is not required to build more plants, but only to supply more fuel (now meaning more coal, uranium or dam water) to already existing plants which are idle at that part of the day.

A second consideration is that one of the major renewables is wind power, which is intermittent, since at times in a given location, the wind is not blowing. Photovoltaic power, also, is not supplied by the sun in the hours of darkness[10]. These intermittencies can be mitigated in various ways, but not entirely, which means that not only does power demand vary across the geographical map, and across the hours of the day, but power supply, as well will have its own new fluctuations. These variabilities in consumption and production from moment to moment matter because electricity is difficult and costly to store—it can not be easily warehoused to smooth out differing moments of availability. What harmonizes these unavoidable and not entirely predictable fluctuations from both the supply and the demand sides will be the intelligent transmission system—the grid. By using variable pricing, it will encourage demand in the hours when supply is high, and will work to reduce demand when supply is tight. It will bring power (which although hard to store is easily and quickly moved from place to place) from a surplus part of the country to a deficit region on a minute to minute basis as needed. Our present obsolete national grid’s low capacity is now a bottleneck, but if the intelligent high-capacity grid is built rapidly as a first order of business, the grid itself in operation will be able to indicate whether renewable power sources and energy efficiency will be adequate for national needs as fossil fuels are phased out, or whether nuclear power will be necessary to avoid continuing to use coal.[11]

All the technologies in this set, plus rapidly developing energy saving techniques such as the intensely-designed “Passive House” from Germany[12], taken together can substitute for all the fossil energy used in the United States. They are ready to be built starting now, and are also primed for substantial improvements in efficiency and lowered cost which will accrue as they are widely applied.

The threat of global warming that is being averted is massive, and the “behind the scenes” transformations in our energy infrastructure from the point of view of an investor, engineer or builder will be very large. There will also be a two-decade additional expense for new capital equipment for the grid and wind and solar power.[13] But the broad public should not be overly apprehensive. The daily changes and adaptations required from people in the ordinary consuming population will be virtually nil, or invisible—less change perhaps overall than going from driving a manual shift to an automatic transmission car, and similarly in the direction of greater ease rather than more difficulty and hardship.

We see that with the electrification of vehicles (and of space heating through heat pumps), virtually all of our energy will come in the form of electricity. Converting from a fossil energy system to a non-fossil, electricity-based one will have a capital cost, and this will necessitate collecting the cost through higher energy prices for a time, but energy prices need not be a great deal higher. There will be a difference well less than the present variation of power costs from one section of the country and another.[14] A good deal of the increase should be collected in the form of a carbon tax (or carbon permit fee) on the fossil energy which is being phased out.[15] This in itself will incentivize and speed along the conversion.[16] Very importantly, once a renewable system is paid for, not only does it do no environmental damage, but it has no fuel cost since the wind and sun are free. With a new system that is capital (machinery) intensive, rather than resource (coal, oil, natural gas) intensive, in the long run flexible clean energy for everything we do, from vehicles to lighting and home heating, and to computers, should cost substantially less than energy costs now.[17]

This change-over from fossil energy to full use of renewable (or renewable and some nuclear) electric power throughout the economy has the potential to move United States carbon emissions toward very close to zero, putting us at long last in a position to lead the rest of the world, especially China and India, in the same direction. It is clearly the main path to follow, and it is clear that the technologies involved are both ready, and that they will have further improvement as they are produced on large scales, perhaps especially the intelligent high-capacity grid. Study and development along other paths, such as basic chemical and physical research, and bio-fuels (probably ultimately mainly for aviation), can and should proceed with vigorous funding (although the search for carbon capture and sequestration from coal looks more like a political sop to a vocal industry, and would better be abandoned.) A struggle which some have foreseen from the Obama appointments of Carol Browner and Stephen Chu between a “regulatory” orientation and a “research” approach is entirely unnecessary and would only cost valuable time.

The question of time, or pace has become very prominent in climate policy discussions. Public goals for carbon emission reduction within certain time periods are widely announced. A leading pledge is California’s under Governor Schwarzenegger, now actually embodied in legislation, to bring this large state’s emissions to1990 levels by 2020 (roughly a 25% reduction in California), and to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Since his election, Barack Obama has echoed this, saying that he also wants to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050 at the Federal level. The European Union has set similar targets, and is now moving into the second cycle of them.

But the time dimension is very tricky. The actual speed and cost at which the construction of an intelligent grid, the conversion of vehicles to plug-ins, and the replacement of fossil generation, can be accomplished are not known.[18] Setting a target is far from the same as actually producing non-fossil energy and cutting carbon emissions. There is therefore a major risk that over-ambitious scheduling targets will ultimately discourage and depress effort, and that under-ambitious targets, too quickly and easily achieved, will turn into ceilings rather than goals, also inhibiting the intense and continuous effort that is needed. The too-easy target is a particular danger that could hobble progress by decades. The best temporal framework for action, although it demands more complex understanding and support from the legislators and the public, is to see that the best answer to “how fast should we go?” is “as fast as possible,” without too much stress being place on setting time-bound targets. That sounds almost simple minded, but it is not. How fast did Britain develop and implement radar as WW II loomed? Not according to timed, stage by stage planning, but “as fast as possible,” seeking and chasing down every path to the goal.

Moreover, the necessarily cautiously programmed and budgeted work of large institutions like the U.S. Department of Energy or California’s Air Resources Board will certainly be indispensable, but we should also be open to innovation from less formal operations, like the famous Lockheed “skunk works.” The overall de-fossilized energy investment system should be set up explicitly to foster, and not block, innovation and impetus from unpredicted and untrammeled spirits who can dash forward in the fast lane, as Craig Venter radically speeded up the analysis of the genome which was being pursued with bureaucratice propriety and deliberation under Francis Collins at a massive public institution, NIH. Basically we should be betting on everything, including the unexpected long shot from left field who may save the day. In a way, the whole blossoming plug-in hybrid development in the tradition-encrusted field of automobile transportation is such an opportune outrider which we should be ready to seize, scale up, and exploit vigorously.

The most recent news from the scientific front is that greenhouse climate change, at our present 385 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, is going forward faster than earlier expected, with the possibility of several tipping points now looming beyond which self- nourishing feedback mechanisms will be triggered making warming difficult or impossible to stop. As Barack Obama takes office, the importance and urgency of the issue is increasing, almost day by day, rather than receding.

The moral of the story for the new administration is to give an immediate high priority to this issue, to attract as much effort and funding to it as possible from the need for employment-generating economic stimulus projects, and to open with a sharp focus on rapid diffusion of hybrid and electric vehicles, renewable/nuclear power generation to replace coal, and a high-capacity highly intelligent grid.

Peter Lydon

1584 LeRoy Avenue,

Berkeley, CA 94708


[1] See the summarizing IPCC reports of 1995, 2001, and 2007, especially the most recent. These are however, massive reviews of a large field. More compactly, John Houghton. 2004. Global Warming, the Complete Briefing, Cambridge University Press, and most compactly, John Holdren, “Six Reasons to take Action”, Foreign Service Journal, 4 pp. March 1999 (suppliable in .pdf format by me).

[2] Notably Bill McKibben’s 2006 The End of Nature. Random House, New York

[3] Compare E. Spitzer 1/5/09 “The Best Policy: Robots not Roads.” Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/2207920

[4] U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2008. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Report. Report #: DOE/EIA – 0573 (2007) Release Date: December 3, 2008

[5] Compare Vlasic, Bill. 2009. Detroit Goes for Gasless Cars, but will Drivers? NYTimes, 1/11/09, p.1

[6] In the area of public policy, it is critical that no new coal power plants be allowed to be built.

[7] 20% Wind Energy by 2030, Increasing Wind Energy’s Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply. DOE/GO-102008-2567 July 2008. See also www.eere.energy.gov/windandhydro and www.nrel.gov/docs/fy08osti/41869.pdf .

[8] Zweibel, Ken, and James Mason and Vaisilis Fthenakis. 2008. “A Solar Grand Plan.” Scientific American, January 2008.

[9] Wiser, Ryan and Galen Barbose. 2008. Renewables Portfolio Standards in the U.S., a status report with data through 2007. LBNL-154E April 25 rev’n. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA

[10] This is in contrast to solar concentrated power, which can be stored at the plant itself in the form of superheated fluid, and thus can be dispatched as electricity on a 24 hour cycle.

[11] This parallels the analysis of James Hansen, who urges that substantial research continue to be funded on what he refers to as “secure, low-waste” Fourth Generation nuclear technology, and on thorium based nuclear technology, in full cooperation with India and China, leading to readiness for judgments on their feasibility in about a decade. “If by then, wind, solar and other renewables and an improved grid prove to be capable of handling all of our electrical energy needs, there would be no imperative to construct nuclear plants in the United States.” Document from Hansen titled: Tell Barack Obama the Truth -- the Whole Truth. Nov/Dec 2008:http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/20081229_Obama_revised.pdf .

This text gives considerably more detail on 4th Generation and thorium nuclear technologies. See also Hansen’s brilliantly organized November 2008 workshop on non-fossil electric power at http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/MiniWorkshop_all/ .

[12] Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is the longstanding dean of American energy efficiency, conservation and decentralization advocates (http://www.rmi.org). For the “Passivhaus” see Elizabeth Rosenthal, “No Furnaces, but Heat Aplenty in Passive Houses” New York Times, 12/27/08, and, in greater detail, http://www.nabihtahanarchitect.com , which proides a link to Nabih Tahan, AIA and Christopher Polk, “First U.S. Passive House Retrofit” Home Energy Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008.

[13] A great deal of this investment can be made using the billions to be saved by going from a hign-cost transportation fuel, gasoline, to a low cost one, electricity, as mentioned above.

[14] U.S. Dept of Energy, EIA, on variations between states in cost of electricity: Kentucky, 5.73 cents per kWh; Connecticut, 15.75 cents. www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table 5_6_a.html

[15] This is the important and thorny subject of “putting a price on carbon.” It has already generated, as it had to do, a tug-of-war within the prospective Obama administration: James Broder. 2009. “In Obama’s Team, Two Camps on Climate.” New York Times, January 2, 2009. This large issue is beautifully discussed in a slim work culminating decades of study by the Yale economist William Nordhaus, well equipped and deeply steeped in the subject: A Question of Balance. 2008. Yale University Press.

[16] James Hansen vigorously and rightly prefers a carbon tax to pricing carbon emissions through “cap and trade” arrangements. Rather than using the proceeds of the carbon tax to invest in carbon-free energy infrastructure, he would rely on the disincentivizing effect of the tax, which will raise the cost of all goods and services which embody carbon. Hansen would rebate its entire proceeds directly to the public, thus building popular support for the tax, and disadvantaging only heavier than average consumers of carbon-based energy. He refers to this as a “cap and dividend.” This leaves it entirely to the market to direct the necessary capital flows to investment in the new energy productive apparatus. With the new forms of energy enjoying a substantial price advantage to the consumer, it is perhaps the case that non-fossil energy production would attract adequate investment on a purely market basis. This seems to presume that the Hansen carbon tax would be quite high, and that leads to problems of political feasibility.

[17] The ideal laboratory to lead in working out these relationships could well be the Federally created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which is now a very large energy producer, using coal, hydro and nuclear power generation.

[18] Galbraith, Kate, and Matthew L. Wald. “Energy Goals a Moving Target for States.” New York Times, December 5, 2008, in NYT series, “The Energy Challenge.”

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