Two weeks ago I listened to a great lecture by John Holdren about planning our energy future in the light of climate change. Holdren is the White House director of the Office of Science and Technology. It was broken down into 6 parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6. Here are some screen grabs from the presentation:
B.A.U = Business as Usual.
About half of the program was devoted to the possible use of nuclear energy in the fuel mix (a field of expertise for Holdren). That is pretty controversial, and really I think the crucial question is how much potential exists for renewables. The research into that is not conclusive. Skepticalscience.com has two articles on that subject: Does Renewable Energy Need to provide baseline power? and another article on renewable baseline power.
Two must-read articles on coal and climate change. James Fallows does a great profile about the coal industry and how despite the fact that they are a primary source of GHG, they are nonetheless making great strides in efficiency (especially in Chinese coal plants). David Roberts responded to the article with some good points. and gave another response about Fallow’s generally positive portrayal of new coal technology in China.
The point of my initial response was just to challenge this notion: "most people who take climate issues seriously assume that coal is unambiguously the enemy." Fallows traveled around China and the U.S. and talked to tons of people and they are all convinced that coal is here for the foreseeable future. In fact he couldn’t seem to find a single person to quote who doesn’t believe that! The overwhelming bias in U.S. politics is pro-coal; U.S. politicians, including the leaders of both parties and the president, have "clean coal" on the tips of their tongues. The IEA, the IPCC, and the U.N. are all four square behind cleaner coal, as is virtually every national government. Efforts to clean coal do not lack powerful institutional backing.
In my experience, while there may be people who think coal can be eliminated quickly, there are virtually none in positions of any power. Far from being hegemons in this debate, they are a marginal minority. That’s why I wonder at all the time and energy spent — not even so much by Fallows as by many others — trying to convince them to accept coal.
By the way, I belong to the group of people who believe coal has no role to play in our energy mix. I confess that this viewpoint is more of a kneejerk reaction than a practical position; for example, I haven’t closely examined whether nuclear + renewables provide enough power to make up the difference. On the other hand, it seems prudent to remove through regulation the oldest and least efficient plants and to place sharp limits nearly to the point of extinction about new coal plants. One of the implicit assumptions behind the pro-coal position is that our energy needs will continue rising. I don’t think that is true (and carbon pricing can definitely play a role in that).
Roberts follows up with an important point about distributed energy. There is no point in admiring Chinese emphasis on gigantic and new power installations.
… industrial gigantism is not what we’re good at, not any more. These days we’re good in areas where private entrepreneurship and innovation are prized, iterations are continuous, and markets are dynamic — consumer-focused stuff like services, software, and information technology.
It turns out those talents are eminently applicable to the energy challenge. Specifically, the cluster of practices and technologies known loosely as "distributed energy" (DE) plays directly to American strengths. DE involves community-scale production and storage of energy, everything from solar panels and electric-car batteries to local biomass or cogen plants and utility-scale storage devices. It involves energy-intelligent, networked buildings, appliances, and devices. It involves smart grids and microgrids to manage generation, storage, and use for maximum efficiency. Wonks used to call the vision here an "enernet," meant to be to electricity what the internet is to information, a platform that enables rapid innovation.
The advantages of DE are that it comes in cheap increments, it’s fast to build, it can bypass federal paralysis, it’s often locally owned, barriers to entry and exit are fairly low, it’s labor (as opposed to capital) intensive so it creates lots of jobs, and iterations and innovations come quickly. It draws on Americans’ native entrepreneurship and adventurousness. It’s a more dynamic, democratic, and resilient vision than the current wasteful regime of remote plants, long wires, and dumb consumption.
Roberts also wrote an incredible series about coal and energy l in America. Here’s his prediction about upcoming EPA regulations:
Here’s the basic problem the EPA faces: The best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources — primarily power plants — is to approach the situation holistically: shut down a bunch of dirty power plants, build a bunch of clean power plants, and push hard on efficiency to cover the cost differential and protect ratepayers. Legislation could have done that. EPA can’t. EPA can’t make anybody build anything.
EPA is forced by the structure of the Clean Air Act to tackle greenhouse gas emissions on a plant-by-plant basis, using what’s called a Best Available Control Technology (BACT) standard. The agency describes it as "a case-by-case decision that takes into account technical feasibility, cost, and other energy, environmental, and economic impacts." Theoretically regulators can require anything, up to and including different combustion processes and even different fuels.
That BACT process works well enough for traditional air pollutants like sulfur dioxide or particulates, but for CO2 it’s … awkward. There’s no scrubber that will remove CO2 from smokestack gas. There are no existing means for incrementally ratcheting down CO2 emissions. Instead, the options for stationary sources tend to come in two flavors: modest and radical. There’s little in between. It puts EPA in a bind.
This is especially true when it comes to existing power plants.
Here’s some trends for utility power. Blue is natural gas, green is Renewable and brown is coal.
In the 1970s, there was a huge buildout — mostly coal, but also a good bit of natural gas, nuclear, and hydro. Notably, in the ’90s, new coal-plant construction tapered off almost completely and has never come back. This is worth emphasizing: For the past 20 years, nobody’s been building coal plants. They are not economically competitive, mainly because of the high capital expense of modern pollution controls. (Remember, coal can be cheap or clean, but not both.)
FYI: Climate Crock of the Week has made a great index to all its videos. If you haven’t watched these things, you should begin watching them immediately. Each 5 minute minute is well-researched, witty and fun to watch.
There were also some great presentations in the Climate Change hearings from a few weeks ago. I’ll try to get some interesting screengrabs by the panelists.
Here’s an RSS feed to the Commonwealth Club Climate One podcast. This is a California-based group who organizes panels and lectures by prominent people in the field of climate change. I’ve been tearing through the podcasts. Here are some MP3s that grabbed me:
- Ed Markey gives a post mortem about the climate change bill. He really understands the issues as well as the political realities.
- Stephen Schneider on risk analysis and climate change. (He died a few months ago). This is a great and historic lecture.
- Some headhunters on green jobs (relevant for people today).
More about the Climate One podcast. This really gives in depth analysis of climate change science and politics, with a slight bent towards California. Their list of guest speakers is pretty stellar..and it even includes a lot of people associated with denialism and fossil fuel industries. I’ve put off listening to the talk by fossil fuel industry people and politicians, but I’ll get around to most of them.