My friend, and expert on electric cars, Phillip Adams, made a proposal at a public political meeting that we should make the transition to electric vehicles. He had a solid argument, and there were several different lines of reasoning leading to that conclusion.
A person speaking in opposition, with good intention, noted that we do burn coal to make electricity, and therefore, while we all want to eventually see all the cars be electric, don’t jump on that bandwagon too fast, buddy boy…
Phil was right, the arguer-againster-guy was wrong.
Earlier today, Minnesota Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto released her energy transition plan. It an ambitious plan that puts together several elements widely considered necessary to make any such plan work, then puts them on steroids to make it work faster. To my knowledge, this is the first major plan to be proposed since the recent dual revelations that a) the world is going to have to act faster than we had previously assumed* and b) the US Federal government will not be helping.
Here’s the elevator speech version: Minnesota residents get around five thousand dollars cash (over several years), monetary incentives to upgrade all their energy using devices from furnaces to cars, some 80,000 new, high paying jobs, and in the end, the state is essentially fossil fuel free.
About half of that fossil fuel free goal comes directly from the plan itself, the other half from the economy and markets passing various tipping points that this plan will hasten. The time scale for the plan is roughly 10 years, but giving the plan a careful reading I suspect some goals will be reached much more quickly. This means that once the plan takes off, Minnesotans will have an incentive to hold their elected officials accountable for holding the course for at least a decade.
The central theme of the plan is to use a revenue-neutral carbon price, which is widely seen by experts as the best approach for cleaning up our energy supply. The simple version of the carbon price works like this: Releasing carbon is saddled with a cost, way up (or early) in the supply chain. So you don’t pay a gas tax or any kind of energy tax, but somewhere up the line the big players are being charged for producing energy reliant on the release of fossil carbon. They, of course, have the option of producing electricity from wind and solar.
The campaign notes, “Rebecca’s Minnesota-Powered Plan doesn’t raise taxes a single penny. It levies a carbon price on fossil fuel companies, and pays 100% of the revenue back to Minnesota residents, so we can take charge of our own energy.”
That money is then distributed to any citizen who wants it (of course they will all want it), evenly, across the board. So, in theory, your cost of living is a little higher if dirty energy producers are in your own personal supply chain, but lower if they are not, and in any event, you are paid off to not care. The point is, if you personally eschew fossil carbon releasing products or energy sources, you get the payoff and someone else is paying for it. That would apply to both individuals and companies, because companies can often make those choices. For example, a school bus company would be more likely to replace an old dirty bus with an electric bus rather than a propane bus. (Just yesterday, an electric bus set a record, going over 1,000 miles on a single charge! Electricity is some pretty powerful magic.)
The Otto plan has a twist. While 75% of the carbon price is distributed evenly and directly to all citizens, 25% is distributed as refundable tax credits intended to cover 30% of the cost of clean energy improvements that use Minnesota companies. This may include solar panels, heat pumps for heating and cooling, insulation, new lighting, etc. New or used electric cars count. So it all goes back to the people, but some of it is directed to support the energy transition for individuals and families.
(A “refundable credit” is a tax credit that you still get even if you did not pay enough taxes to use it, so people of any income will be able to access the clean energy benefits.)
The conservatively estimated potential cash gain for a typical Minnesota family is laid out in this table from the Otto campaign:
That is for one year. As the plan matures, a decade down the line, we can assume the carbon price component will diminish, but the household payback for being off fossil fuels will increase, and, guess what? The plant gets to live and your children don’t have to live in as much of a dystopian future!
The clean energy technologies that will need to be deployed mostly already exist, and most of them can be processed and supplied right here in Minnesota. Indeed installing PV panels and car chargers, or efficient heat pump based furnaces, etc. is the kind of job that can not be outsourced to some other country, because your house is here so the work gets done here! It is estimated that some 80,000 long term high paying jobs will be generated from this infrastructure redo. That will in turn increase revenues to the state and quite likely, will spell surpluses, some of which are likely to be tax rebates or other sorts of payoffs to the citizens of the state.
A quick word about the Coal-Car Myth. Some will read about this plan and say, “yeah, but … if I drive an electric car and stuff, that electricity is even worser because it is made with dirty coal and stuff.” (Yes, I make the Coal-Car Mythers sound a bit dull because, at this point, you’d have to be a bit dull to still be thinking this). First, know this: There are circumstances under which burning coal to make electricity to charge a car will be more efficient than running a gasoline car. To conceptualize this, imagine two engineering teams in a competition. One is to make an energy plant using coal, the other is to use an energy plant using only 6 cylinder Ford motors. The winner builds the plant that is more efficient. The team using the thousands of internal combustion engines will lose. Second, know this: It is simply not the case that all of our electricity comes from coal, and every week there is less and less of it coming from coal. Electric cars have the promise, by the way, of outlasting internal combustion cars on average. So, over perhaps half the lifespan of a given electric car, what might have been a tiny increase in efficiency for a small number of electric cars (the rest start out way more than tiny) will become a great efficiency. It is time to switch to electric cars in Minnesota.
You can expect opposition to this plan from the likes of the Koch brothers, who are currently spending just shy of a billion dollars a year, that we know of, to keep fossil fuel systems on line and stop the clean energy transition. I asked Rebecca Otto what she expected in terms of push back. She told me, “Investing in clean energy means investing in our communities and taking charge of our own energy, instead of subsidizing big oil. Hence, big oil will be the stumbling block, as this will affect their bottom line over time.”
I asked Rebecca why this is something that needs to be handled by the states, rather than at the national level. She told me, “The crippling dysfunction in Washington is persistent and we need to act now. Oil companies are spending billions of dollars to rig the system against clean energy solutions. We need to break their stranglehold on our democracy and put people, not oil companies back in charge.”
She also noted that “we also have a moral imperative to do something and the federal government has become paralyzed by big oil propaganda and political spending. The states could become laboratories to begin to tackle climate change. And whoever does is going to reap the economic benefits from the job creation. These jobs pay 42% higher than the state’s average wage.”
Economists say the carbon price is the best way to make the energy transition happen. Regular Minnesotans benefit the most, the Minnesota economy benefits, and the environment benefits. This is a good plan. I endorse it.
This plan, which you should read all about here, has also been endorsed by the famous and widely respected meteorologist Paul Douglas, by Bill McKibben of 350.org, St Thomas scientist and energy expert John Abraham, and by climate scientist Michael Mann.
I’ve got more to say about this plan and related topics, so stay tuned.
Here’s a video of Rebecca Otto discussing energy from the roof of her solar paneled home, with her windmill generating electricity in the background. Apparently, she walks the walk!
*You may have seen recent research suggesting that we have more time than previously estimated to get our duck in a row with clean energy. That research was misrepresented in the press. A statement made by one of the authors clarifies: “..to likely meet the Paris goal, emission reductions would need to begin immediately and reach zero in less than 40 years’ time.”
The key factor is that there are technological innovations and economies of scale that emerge only in the course of actually doing something.
Here’s the thing. Let’s say you were suddenly in charge of one trillion dollars of money that could be used to address climate change. What would you spend the money on? Here are some suggestions.
1) Build machines that take CO2 out of the air.
2) Invest in the “next generation” of nuclear reactors.
3) Purchase a huge amount of deforested land and re-forest it.
4) Divide the money up among numerous research groups to develop as yet unknown clean energy technologies that may save us.
All those things are potentially good ideas, and we should probably think about doing all of them at some level. But that is not how you should spend your trillion dollars. The way you should spend your trillion dollars is to underwrite the cost of converting as many homes and businesses as you can to using passive geothermal heating and cooling, and to install photovoltaic on the roofs. Some of the money could also be used to switch internal combustion engines over to electric. Why do these things first? Because they are low hanging fruit. The results would be immediate. A home that uses passive geothermal will use about half, or less, of the fossil carbon for that purpose. A home that has fully deployed PV panels on the roof can cover the electricity for all of that home’s commuting costs and run the heating and cooling system, and a few other things, for much of the year. And so on. As long as our landscape is characterized by buildings with roofs that serve mainly to convert sunlight into heat, we can buy out that sunlight, harness it, and move towards a greater percentage of clean energy very very quickly.
At the same time, of course, we do want to do research on new technologies, perhaps even carbon capture (though I think that should be way down on the list). But there is so much we can do with existing technologies addressing existing needs. As Mann put it, “The obstacle is not a physical one—it is one of political and societal will.”
Car makers and dealers have to get with the program.
JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — The Missouri Automobile Dealers Association is suing the state revenue department for allowing electric car maker Tesla Motors to sell directly to consumers rather than using a dealership as a middleman.
The car dealers, including Reuther Ford Inc. and Osage Industries Inc., filed a lawsuit Thursday in Cole County Circuit Court claiming the department violated state law by licensing the California-based manufacturer as a franchise.
Department of Revenue spokeswoman Michelle Gleba said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Car manufacturers typically provide cars to a franchised dealership to sell, but the department in 2013 licensed Tesla to sell its vehicles in a University City facility.
The lawsuit filed this week claims the department “created a non-level playing field where one entity — Tesla — is subject to preferential treatment and all bona fide dealers are discriminated against.”
There is currently a twitter argument happening, along with a bit of a blogging swarm, over a chimera of a remark made by John Stossle and Bjorn Lomborg. They made the claim that a million electric cars would have no benefit with resect to Carbon emissions. The crux of the argument is that there is a Carbon cost to manufacturing and running electric cars. When we manufacture anything, we emit Carbon, and when we make electricity to run the cars, we emit Carbon, etc. etc.
Lomborg is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. But here I want to focus on one aspect of why he is wrong that applies generally to this sort of topic.
My point is very simple, really. We can take any green and clean technology, such as making Ethanol from corn (to replace gasoline produced from fossil fuels), or building windmills, or running electric cars on juice produced in coal plants, and so on, and count the fossil Carbon released by the process against the savings of Carbon by the process. But that is wrong. The reason it is wrong is that we need to keep the Carbon in the ground. If there is fossil Carbon being released by a coal plant that is running, ultimately, electric cars (or buses or trains) than there is a savings for the simple reason that running vehicles with electricity is a) more inherently efficient than using countless tiny explosions of fossil fuel, and b) almost always uses a mix of non-fossil-carbon energy sources such as wind power, hydro, nuclear, and solar. But that is not the point. The point is that ultimately we have to change the energy source from coal and natural gas to other sources. When we see a variable in the Carbon savings for a given technology that involves releasing fossil carbon, we have to hunt down that source and change it to non-fossil energy production. We need to build the electric cars in plants that are run on non-fossil energy, and use materials that are obtained, shipped, and processed with non-fossil energy, and run the vehicles on electricity made with non-fossil sources.
And increasingly, this is happening. If you have a plug in EV car now, there is an increasing number of places where you can plug the thing in and get non-fossil fuel juice to charge it up. This of course is developing too slowly. Every park and ride lot, the big giant parking lot at the mall, and your garage, should all have solar cells on the roof to provide at least some of the energy used to charge cars that plug in for some juice. Individual home owners should opt, where possible, to buy wind generated energy over fossil fuel generated energy. And so on.
The argument that “you can’t do this thing to avoid using fossil fuels because the thing uses fossil fuels” is countered by the argument that “if you are using fossil fuels than you need to find a way to not use fossil fuels.” The entire argument that the use of fossil fuels is involved in the non-use of fossil fuels is real, but temporary, and is really nothing other than an argument to not use fossil fuels in ALL areas we are currently using them, eventually.